When it comes to relationships, particularly the romantic kind, we all know by now that good, clear communication is key to avoiding conflict.
Of course, many other factors enter into the equation, including a willingness on both sides to be flexible, vulnerable and compassionate, having a solid base of respect for one another, and feeling connected and safe with each other.
A healthy dose of genuine affection for your partner also goes a long way towards maintaining a state of equanimity; you’re much less inclined to want to kill one another when you actually like each other.
But inevitably, there will be times when even the most enlightened of couples wind up pushing each other’s buttons. Tempers flare, heads get hot, and egos are ruffled; suddenly, what began as a calm and rational discussion or an off-hand comment can become a raging tempest of hurt feelings and angry words.
So what can we do when our best attempts at avoiding a conflict have failed, and we find ourselves in the midst of a heated argument with someone we love?
Here are 5 things to try when all attempts at prevention have failed:
1. Pause Breathe Relax
This may seem obvious, but it’s amazing how quickly our executive functioning can become completely inaccessible to us when we are caught up in the heat of an argument.
When tempers flare, we enter that fight or flight state of high arousal (not the fun kind); our faces get red, our hearts race, we feel agitated and edgy, and we completely lose that sense of centred calm.
Feelings of empathy and rational thoughts and decisions are less available to us in this state, and we often say and do things we regret once we’ve returned to our senses.
When you feel yourself becoming agitated in this way, try to pause and take a few deep breaths. Count to 10. If possible, go for a walk or find some other way to relax your nervous system and regain your composure before continuing.
2. Maintain gentle physical contact
Initiating and maintaining a gentle point of contact, such as resting your hand on your partner’s arm or leg, or moving close enough to have each other’s knees touching, can go a long way towards diffusing anger and tension.
Maintain eye contact as much as possible, and try not to allow so much space to come between the two of you that touch is impossible. What you’ll find is that it is much more difficult to get mean and ugly when you and your partner are effectively holding hands.
Touch reminds both of you that there is a real, feeling person in front of you, not an enemy.
It’s the equivalent comparison of yelling at someone from within the bubble of your car with the windows rolled up, to standing face to face with the nice little old lady who was driving erratically and pissing you off. Suddenly, you don’t feel quite the same urge to launch a stream of profanity at her, do you?
Tip: if you can come to an agreement with your partner (when you are not arguing) to make an effort at always maintaining physical touch when you disagree, this technique can be even more effective.
3. Agree with your partner
Yep, just agree with whatever it is they are accusing you of, or complaining about, or criticizing you for. Sound too easy? Well, it isn’t. Simple yes, but definitely not easy.
When we are attacked or criticized, our fragile egos take center stage, and pride rears its ugly head. It hurts. Even when we know there is truth to another’s accusation or assessment of us (in fact, particularly when this is the case), we go on the defensive, vehemently denying any responsibility.
We may even go a step further by lashing out with a counter-attack, all in an effort to avoid that horribly uncomfortable sensation of admitting fault.
By simply agreeing with your partner, you disarm them, effectively taking the wind out of their sails.
And agreeing, even to some small degree, places you and your partner back on the same team.
You don’t have to agree wholeheartedly with whatever your partner accuses you of for this to work. Let’s say they have called you out on being grumpy and sullen in the morning. Whether or not this is entirely true, try saying something along the lines of “You’re right.
I can be a miserable turd when I first wake up.” If the accusation feels completely unjust, you might try “I can see that something about my behavior in the mornings is really upsetting you. Let’s talk about what we could do differently.”
You’ll be amazed to feel the complete and utter shift in the energy, and the sudden willingness in your partner to share some part of the responsibility.
4. Express how you feel
I know, I know… this one is a little cheesy and overdone, but it works. There’s a reason it’s so popular in all enlightened relationship and self-help books.
Using language that starts with expressing how you feel can disrupt an argument by eliciting empathy in the other person, thereby diffusing their anger.
If you express how a situation or comment or behavior genuinely makes you feel, you bypass the ‘he said/she said’ part of the explanation and skip straight to the important, underlying issues.
Fights and arguments are rarely about who didn’t do the dishes or who said what in a nasty tone over dinner. They originate from hurt feelings, and from pain.
When our feelings are hurt, when we are fearful of judgement and rejection, especially from those we love the most, we tend to lash out to avoid having to deal with such unpleasant and uncomfortable sensations.
When one person in the argument is brave enough to be vulnerable in expressing the emotions they feel beneath the anger and frustration, without accusing the other of being the cause, they are bypassing the inflammatory language of blame, and the unprovable and shifting facts of ‘what happened’, and getting straight to the heart of things.
5. Insert laugh track here
Now this one can be a little tricky. You really have to know your partner, and be able to judge the appropriate timing and style of humor to use. But the disarming effects of a little well-placed playfulness or a good self-deprecating joke can be instantaneous.
Be careful not to use humor to disguise a hidden agenda or criticism.
You also want to avoid sarcasm. It’s always best to use humor that pokes gentle fun at yourself, or that makes use of an inside joke that only the two of you would get. The idea here is to remind the other person that you’re on the same side.
If you’re lucky enough to get a smile or laugh out of your partner as a result of your efforts, you’ll likely find the tension greatly diffused.