We all have habits, a sort of autopilot or default behavior, that we fall into during arguments if we’re not careful. These can cause the situation to escalate, because it often leads to disconnection and a feeling of resentment from one or both parties. We see our partner retreating into a habitual pattern, and we feel like they are no longer responding with empathy and care.
In my work, I’m often asked how we get out of these patterns in the heat of the moment.
This is a tricky subject, because when we are in the middle of an argument we can’t really handle a lot of complexity. Our thoughtful and caring brain goes offline when we feel threatened or stressed in an interaction, so we need something very simple to help orient us and start changing the reality we’re experiencing in that moment.
I want to share two pieces of the simplest phraseology that I could come up with, to hopefully help you get yourself back on track in these moments.
This first phrase is a cue to your mind, and by extension to your nervous system, to stop overthinking and racing ahead. The first step here is to simply stop throwing gasoline onto the fire, and give ourselves a moment to think.
In neuroscience, we talk a lot about error correction as we learn new information. The faster we are moving, the more we lose our ability to error-correct. We start jumping to conclusions and following assumptions, and the amount of information our brain is trying to process at such high speeds makes it harder to catch mistakes or realize where we may have missed something.
This is a natural state to find ourselves in; for example, think about when you’re driving really fast. The higher your speed, the more challenging it is to react to potential dangers on the road. It’s the same in an argument. The faster your brain is moving, the more information your brain is trying to handle, and the easier it is to miss something vital.
When you get into an argument with your partner and you find it starting to escalate, the cue phrase of “slow down” is meant to help that you look at the situation in the present, with a bit spaciousness and less fusion with the forward momentum of “What’s happening”, or “Why is it happening”.
Slowing down and asking yourself, “What’s going on for them? What’s actually underneath all the anger and the frustration that I’m feeling?” will help you communicate better. More useful information starts coming forth when you cue yourself and your nervous system in this way, and your brain is better able to process that information in relation to all the other information it has been trying to juggle at top speed.
The overarching point here is that this phrase will have an effect on your current emotional and physical state, so that you can be more responsive and effective in your communication and in your reactions to your partner.
Own your part
One of the central causes of escalation in arguments is that people often don’t see their own part in the dynamic. They see themselves as a victim of the other’s insensitivity, irrationality, and lack of care They only see that it’s the other’s fault, and believe that if the other just changed what they said, or how they said it, then they wouldn’t be feeling or dealing with the situation in such a negative way. This phrase, “own your part”, brings the focus back to your own self. You have to ask yourself, “What part am *I* playing in this?”
I used to always see myself in arguments as being “in the right”. I would think to myself, “I’m not doing anything wrong here”.
By thinking in this way, I put the onus on my wife to de-escalate us. I would think, if she were just a little bit more calm and rational, then we wouldn’t be in this argument. In reacting this way, I wasn’t actually listening to my wife or responding to her with care. I was going numb, shutting down, and acting like I was listening but not actually being demonstrative with the fact that I was getting what she was trying to communicate. This would cause her to escalate because she wasn’t getting any clear empathy or validation from me, and her perspective was that I just didn’t want to hear what she had to say.
So, the next time you find yourself in a quickly-escalating argument, try to remember these simple phrases. It’s important to actually interrupt your patterns, otherwise you’re just going to do what’s automatic. These phrases can bring in the possibility of changing those patterns.
If you slow down, and try to understand what you are actually contributing to the argument, you might realize what is actually happening for the other person, and you won’t just be pulled on the trajectory of your habits and ingrained behaviors.
Slow down. Own your part.
What would happen if you held that as something you were committed to doing, not just in your romantic relationships, but in all arguments?