"We had a bad fight last night. I'm not even sure what we were fighting about but it kept escalating and got really ugly."
"I don't know what to do when my wife starts in on me. No matter what I say, she's like a dog with a bone. I can't get her to stop attacking me."
"I can tell by the look on his face that I'm in for it. My husband is relentless when he is trying to have control over getting me to do something his way. I hate it and I don't know what to do about it."
I hear these statements over and over from my clients.
Most people, when growing up, had no good role modeling regarding how to keep a fight from escalating.
Most couples fight occasionally, and that's fine. Sometimes a good fight will clear the air of issues that haven't been resolved, and the fight may open the door to resolution. But too often fights escalate into ugliness, and this is very detrimental to a relationship.
Issues can get resolved fairly quickly and easily when both partners are open to learning about themselves and each other, and finding a win-win resolution.
However, if one or both of you are intent on controlling, which is generally the case with anger and blame, no win-win resolution can occur.
Sometimes, if one person is angry and the other person stays open to learning, the angry partner will calm down and you can then discuss the issue.
Here are six healthy ways of keeping a fight from escalating:
1. Touch your partner with gentleness and compassion.
If you know that your partner is the kind of person who responds to loving touch, then reaching to touch or hug your partner might bring about a softening. However, some people will resist being touched when they are triggered into their anger and blame, so if you know this about your partner, this is not a good strategy.
2. Use humor.
Sometimes, if the disagreement hasn't gone too far, lightly saying something like, "I bet if you yell just a little louder you can have control over me," or putting on some music and saying, "Let's dance," may jog your partner out of a wounded place and into laughter. Sometimes just laughing and saying, "Here we go again," can do wonders. Of course, this depends on how determined your partner is to fight with you and control you. If you know ahead of time that this is likely to enrage him or her more, then clearly this is not a good thing to try.
3. Listen attentively and move into a compassionate intent to learn.
Sometimes your partner just needs to be heard. If you listen with genuine interest and ask questions from a real desire to learn about why he or she is so upset, this might calm your partner down enough to talk about the issue. You might want to say something like, "I'm interested in hearing you and understanding what you are upset about, but I have a hard time listening when you are so angry. Can you tell me the same thing without the attack?"
However, if you are open and your partner remains closed and continues to attack and blame, then you need to do something else. Staying in the line of fire will likely eventually escalate the fight.
4. Speak your truth and move into a compassionate intent to learn.
Saying something like, "It hurts me and scares me when you treat me like this. I love you and I want to connect with you. Can we talk about this instead of fighting about it?" may open the door to learning and resolution. Or, saying something like, "It sounds to me that you are trying to control me. Is that your intent?" might give your partner a moment of pause.
However, when your partner is in a wounded state, he or she might not care about the fact that their behavior is hurting you or that they just want to control you. In fact, when people are in a scared and wounded state, they might want to hurt you or feel justified in trying to control you. When this is the case, then one of the next two ways will be helpful.
5. Speak your truth and then lovingly disengage.
Speaking your truth means saying something like, "It's not okay with me to be treated like this, so I'm going for a walk (or going in another room)." Then you need to lovingly disengage, which means leaving to take care of yourself, not withdrawing in anger to punish your partner. The point of lovingly disengaging is to get out of the line of fire and take care of your own feelings -- such as the loneliness and heartache of being treated badly, and the helplessness you feel over your partner's behavior. By keeping your heart open and compassionately tending to your own feelings, you will be ready to let it go ad re-engage, or explore the conflict if your partner eventually opens to learning with you.
6. Remain silent and lovingly disengage.
Sometimes saying anything fuels the flames of a fight, so it may be best to not say anything at all and just walk away.
In order to lovingly disengage, you need to let go of believing that there is something you can say or do that will get your partner to be open and kind. If you've tried to compassionately engage with your partner and he or she remains angry and blaming, then you need to accept that there is nothing you can do to get your partner to open. Accepting your helplessness over your partner may be challenging for you. Your partner likely knows exactly what to say to trigger your hurt and anger and then the two of you go at it. The reason fights escalate is because each partner is trying to control the other, rather than accept their lack of control and take loving care of themselves.
It's a big challenge to accept helplessness over another, but when you fully accept it, then you are free to take loving care of yourself and do whatever you need to do to not escalate the fight, and to then compassionately tend to your own feelings.
Margaret Paul, Ph.D. is a relationship expert, best-selling author, and co-creator of the powerful Inner Bonding® self-healing process, recommended by actress Lindsay Wagner and singer Alanis Morissette, and featured on Oprah. To begin learning how to love and connect with yourself so that you can connect with others, take advantage of our free Inner Bonding eCourse, and join Dr. Margaret Paul for her 30-Day at-home Course: "Love Yourself: An Inner Bonding Experience to Heal Anxiety, Depression, Shame, Addictions and Relationships." Discover SelfQuest®, a transformational self-healing/conflict resolution computer program. Phone or Skype sessions with Dr. Margaret Paul.