Have you ever started a conversation with your partner only to realize 30 minutes later that you are in a big-blow out fight? I bet you wonder how you got there. When did the conversation go off the rails? As couples counselors we spend a lot of time dissecting a fight to see how a couple could have handled that conversation differently. There are a number of things that can cause a conversation to get out of hand.
Here are a some of the ways that fights spiral out of control:
You came in guns ablazin’
The tone that starts the conversation will make a huge difference in the course of that conversation. Try talking calmly to your partner and practice non-critical language when you bring up your topic. John Gottman calls this the “Soft Startup”. In his research he found that couples that used this technique were less likely to have damaging fights. In addition to that, sometimes it is better to wait and bring up a topic when you are feeling more calm. There is a HUGE benefit to going to bed angry if it will give you time to calm down, sober up (see #2), and/or take a different perspective. I bet you can agree that the heat of the moment does not offer you the most accurate perception of reality. Choose a time and a way to communicate about your topic that will be most effective.
You were drunk/intoxicated
What good could come from talking about something serious and volatile when you are not 100% in touch with reality? If you wouldn’t operate heavy machinery, you shouldn’t be handling heavy relationship issues. If you start fighting while drunk, shut it down! Make a pack beforehand that you two will agree not to fight while under the influence. Maybe you can even predict the topics that might lead to drunk fights together before the night starts and agree that you will not discuss them. Nothing has to be taken care of at this moment. As one of my clients recently said, drunk fights are straight out of a Jerry Springer episode. Who wants to act like that?
You didn’t stay on topic
Can you remember your last big fight? Do you remember how the fight started? Most couples can’t! That is because they don’t stay on topic when they talk about difficult issues. When you get into a discussion, stay focused. Stop trying to discuss every issue that is bugging you. When we get in an argument we like to try to change the subject or bring up other points. When we do this we lose sight of what we were originally talking about and this causes the fights to get out of hand and last way longer than necessary. Pick one thing to talk about and leave the rest for later.
You didn’t practice good listening skills
In addition to staying focused you can remember to avoid criticism, defensiveness or shutting down. Instead practice good listening skills by waiting until your partner is finished speaking and telling them what you heard them say before you make your point. Don’t interrupt and don’t tell your partner that they are wrong for feeling the way they are feeling. Don’t worry about details! There is no official transcript of who did or said what in the past. Agree to disagree and let your partner know that you get what they are saying even if you do not agree with it. Remember that the goal of the conversation is for partners to exchange opinions, not facts. Collect the information that your partner is sharing with you as important data that helps you to understand them better without taking it personally and move on.
You missed the big picture
Take a step back! Pay attention to how you two are fighting rather than focusing so much on the content of your fight – especially if it is about something small. The previously mentioned John Gottman’s research discovered that 69% of what couples fight about is irreconcilable. There isn’t always a right or wrong. Taking a macro or big picture view of the argument will help you to notice when you have gone off the rails. When you see that happen point it out and suggest that you two pick up the conversation later. Or you can change your behavior in an attempt to stop the argument by using your good listening skills.
Remember, what a couple fights about is irrelevant. How they fight makes all the difference.