Sometimes despite our best intentions to raise difficult issues gently, things can escalate. Arguments can quickly become stressful and unproductive, especially when we are stuck in painfully familiar patterns. Most of us don’t get taught how to deal with horrible rows! But learning how to resolve arguments constructively can save you a lot of stress and heartache. Here are my tips.
How To Recognise Flooding
Emotional flooding happens when we become overwhelmed by rage, hurt, panic or fear. This usually happens in response to negativity in the form of criticism, defensiveness, or contempt. Flooding can feel very physical – you might feel tense, hot, sick and even deaf. However, it’s also possible to be completely overwhelmed in this way, yet not actually register what is happening physiologically within your body. Either way, it becomes difficult to think straight.
You might feel so defenceless against the negativity that you feel coming from your partner – and the flooded feeling that follows – that you disengage emotionally and stonewall your partner, looking away and keeping quiet.
Both going silent on each other and carrying on shouting can be deeply damaging to relationships. So it is important to learn to recognise flooding. And to know what to do next, so that you can start communicating productively again.
How To Deescalate Tension
It’s really worth working on slowing things down when a disagreement is escalating. And it’s also very helpful to look out for olive branches from your partner, and respond when they are trying to reach out to you. If a discussion starts off on the wrong foot, or you are getting into a cycle of recriminations, there are things you can do to stop turn things around.
When I say olive branch, I’m including any statement or action that aims to stop the negativity from escalating out of control. They are how we deescalate the tension during a touchy conversation. We put the brakes on, so flooding is prevented.
You might say (remembering that tone is everything in moments like these)…
- I feel scared/sad/blamed/defensive/flooded/criticised/worried right now.
- Please slow down/be gentler with me/just listen and try to understand/help me calm down.
- I need your support/a hug/to finish what I was saying/to start again.
- I’m sorry/I didn’t mean that/I can see I’ve upset you/can I take that back?
- I’ve never thought of it like that/I want to understand your point of view/I see what you mean.
- We can find a way to work this out together.
- Can we stop/take a break/come back to this later?
As well as saying things like these, look out for when your partner does something similar. Think of them as opportunities to make the situation better. Take a deep breath, and respond as gently as you can.
How to Resolve Arguments Constructively – Know When to Take A Break
Arguments are really stressful. You’ve probably experienced your heart pounding, your breathing getting shallow, maybe even sweating. It’s up to you to take responsibility for calming and comforting yourself. (See below for some ideas how.)
If you’re fighting a lot, it might help for you to agree a safe word or phrase. If either of you is feeling overwhelmed, you can say the word and separate for at least fifteen minutes. That’s how long it can take to calm down (or sometimes even longer, in which case it’s worth waiting longer). Discuss this in advance and agree where you will both go if you can.
Learn How to Self-Soothe
Once you have hit the pause button, it is time to turn your attention inwards. Reassure yourself that this will pass, and you’re going to get through it. Your mind will most likely be racing with thoughts of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood – but remember that so will your partner’s!
It can help to soothe or distract yourself while your system settles by going for a walk, reading, or listening to music.
You can also use strategies to relax your muscles. You might try sitting still, focusing on your breathing and gradually tensing and releasing your muscles from your head to your toes. Alternatively it can work well to imagine that your breath comes in through your fingertips, flows up your arms, down your torso and legs and out through your feet, in one continuous stream.
Most self-soothing activities are about getting your attention out of your head and into your body. So you’re noticing the physical sensations happening in the here and now. Think about your five senses and how you can engage them. Stroking your arms and legs, having a cup of tea, lighting a scented candle, watching the clouds pass by or listening to a podcast can all help.
Whatever strategy you try, use the time to actively self-soothe, rather than obsessing over your version of what has been happening between you.
How to Resolve Arguments Constructively – Compromise
In intimate, loving relationships, we have to compromise. It’s a key part of how to resolve arguments constructively. If one of you is always getting their way, you might have a kind of peace. But without fairness, the relationship will suffer.
For compromise negotiations to work, you need to be open to your partner’s opinions and desires. You don’t have to agree with everything your partner says. But you do have to be honestly open to considering their position.
It can help for each of you to think about the aspects of the problem that feel immovable to you, and the ones you feel willing to compromise on. Both write them down separately under two headings. Have you heard of the aikido principle of yielding to win? The more able you are to compromise, the better able you’ll be to persuade your partner. So try to make your compromise lists longer than your immovable lists.
Now you are ready to work to find common ground. Have a look at your lists and consider:
- What you agree on
- The feelings that are most important to you both
- What feelings you have in common
- The goals you have in common
- How those goals can be accomplished
Click here to read more about how to get unstuck with a disagreement.
Keep an eye out for flooding and offer olive branches/take breaks/self-soothe as necessary if things get tense again.
Your Partner Isn’t Perfect – But Neither Are You
No one is perfect. If you want a relationship that lasts, you’re going to have to be tolerant of your partner’s shortcomings. Thinking the problem is all down to your partner’s faults won’t get you anywhere. Accepting flaws and foibles is a prerequisite to making love last.
In calmer times, try taking a mental snapshot of your partner at their best. Think of a time when you have felt a strong love and appreciation for your partner and memorise as much detail as you can about that moment. Then when you find yourself thinking of them negatively, you can bring this image to mind to balance out your feelings in the moment.
Every relationship has struggles and disputes. Your role as loving partners is not to seek to change one another. It’s to negotiate, find common ground, and ways that you can accommodate each other.
If You Need More Support Resolving Arguments Constructively
In 2020 I released a self-paced online course called Love In Lockdown. I wrote it to support couples through the pandemic, but it contains masses of advice for any couple who wants to get more adept at resolving disagreements. It includes videos and PDFs on how to:
- Recognise when a disagreement is becoming unproductive and know what to do next
- Deal with feelings of overwhelm so that they don’t get in the way of you being the parent and partner you want to be
- Understand how your different approaches to coping with stress might cause problems in your relationship, and what each of you can do to avoid this
- Move from irritated by to accepting of each other’s habits
Advice on how to resolve arguments constructively adapted from The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work by John Gottman and Nan Silver, which comes highly recommended.