It’s confession time. We did not fight in healthy ways with each other in the first years of our marriage. In fact, our approach was toxic. It was all about, “Winner takes all.” And that is anything but healthy. We yelled, screamed and acted childishly. And we are not proud about any of that. If we could take a giant eraser to those tirades, we would. But we can’t. We can, however, help others to learn from our mistakes. That’s why we are writing this Marriage Insight on the subject of de-escalating and defusing fights in marriage. We hope it will help others to get onto a healthier path of handling their disagreements.
So first, what IS de-escalation? That’s probably obvious, but just in case, here goes. De-escalation is a way of calming down the situation before it “spirals out of proportion.” The goal is to stop the disagreement from going to a place where it is toxic. We’ve heard it said that, “It is a good strategy to use before someone gets angry, or when someone is just starting to get upset, or are in very intense situations.”
And we can attest to that! We’ve learned to step back BEFORE it gets to that poisonous situation. And that’s not easy. When you’re mad, you want to let your spouse have it!
Now, some spouses retreat back and implode, or clam up, rather than explode. But we’ll talk about that another time. Actually, we have articles about that in the Communication and Conflict topic of our web site (if you want to explore that now). For now, we’re going to share some de-escalating info.
De-escalating Marital Fights
But first we want to preface this matter. We realize that some of you are in abusive marriages. If you are, we recommend you visit the Abuse in Marriage topic of our web site. Pray, read, and glean through the info that is presented there. When you’re dealing with abuse it is not a “one-size-fits-all” situation when it comes to advice. Use what you can and throw away the rest. What we’re talking about here is “normal” fighting—even intense fighting. Even so, you have to prayerfully examine what is stated to personally discern if it is advice you should take.
Also, most of these tips work better if they are used before a fight gets ramped up. Sometimes they work even in the midst of a blow up. But mostly, they work better if you apply them beforehand. We’ll explain more below.
So, here goes! The following are some tips we have found that have helped to turn our heated arguments in healthier directions. They have also helped many others. See what you think.
This first tip starts out by explaining a tiny portion of WHY it’s important to de-escalate your conflicts:
“De-escalating is incredibly important when engaging in conflict with your spouse. When you get angry, your body’s fight or flight system, a.k.a. the sympathetic nervous system gets activated. You have an increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and a spike in energy hormones. Your brain begins to act differently as well. The center of the brain, largely responsible for emotions such as fear and anger, immediately begins to light up. When the center of your brain lights up during a state of arousal, such as anger, there is decreased activity in the frontal lobe of your brain. This lobe is responsible for decision making and planning.
“One of the reasons conflict tends to go unresolved in these states of arousal is that we lose the ability to think clearly. It becomes much easier to blow things out of proportion and place blame on others, including your spouse.
“The first step to begin the de-escalation process is to remove yourself from the situation. This means to go into another room in the house or take a walk around the block. If you have been through this before, then you know that you won’t resolve the conflict when you are really frustrated. In fact, it becomes easy to make things worse as you become angrier. Removing yourself from the situation helps to prevent more damage and begin to gain control over your anger. Once you have calmed down you can return to your spouse and resolve the conflict without anger controlling your words.” (From the Marriagetrac article, Surviving the Collisions of Conflict)
It Takes Two to Fight
Now we realize that you don’t have all power here. It does take two to fight. Your spouse has a responsibility in how he or she handles conflicting matters, as well. And hopefully/prayerfully you can influence your spouse to approach conflict in healthy ways. That is our hope for you, and our prayer—that God will talk to your spouse, and he or she will listen.
But we’re talking about personal responsibility here. It is also our prayer that God will talk to you. And it is our hope that you will listen and respond to do things God’s way.
We all must take personal responsibility for our actions. We’re told in the Bible, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:18) So, as “far as it depends upon you” do your part. In verse 17 we’re given parameters that God is expecting us to follow. “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.” (You’ll find even more instructions before and after those scriptures, and throughout the Bible. We encourage you to look around and read for yourself.)
When it comes to de-escalating, keep in mind the bio-chemical changes that occur when a person is angrily ramped up. (The previous tip touched on this.)
“You cannot rationalize with an angry person. So don’t even try. When someone is angry, you won’t even be able to rationalize with them. It’s possible to calm someone down to a point where you can rationalize with them. But until they are calm, you won’t be able to point out ways to help them.
“Your goal is not to expose their erroneous thinking process. Instead, it is to get them to a place where they are willing to listen. Angry people don’t listen. Have you ever argued with someone and both of you were angry? What were you able to accomplish? In most cases, you didn’t even listen to what the other person had to say. Your anger just propelled you on with little regard to what the other person was saying.
So the first step in dealing with someone’s anger is to focus on getting them to calm down and reach a place where you can help.” (Greg Baker, from his article, How to Deal with Someone Else’s Anger)
Call a Truce
When fighting starts to escalate, calling a time out is a healthy thing to do. That’s what works for us. One or both of us will call it. Sometimes we just take a few moments to calm things down. Other times we’ll take a while longer.
And if it’s getting late at night, we might take longer. Now we want to preface something here. We do not allow ourselves to “let the sun go down” on our anger. It’s important to table it. Release it for the night. Get some sleep and then talk about the matter. We talk about this in the article, “Going to Bed Angry?” So if you want to explore more about this, visit the linked title. Read it and see if it will work for you and your spouse.
But the point is that sometimes it’s good to call a truce. It’s healthy to take a time out to calm things down. However, when you do this make sure you revisit the matter again at a designated time. Make sure you steer clear of H.A.L.T. Times. (Those are times when either of you is Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired.) But DO come back and talk about it again. You may even need to revisit it several times. And/or you may need to agree to disagree over the whole matter. Some issues just aren’t resolvable. Even so, you can find ways to marry your differences in a way that is agreeable to both of you.
Additional De-escalating Tips
Here are two tips for you to prayerfully consider, as far as taking a time out:
• “When you feel that moment of anger, turn to your anger exit strategy. Take the anger bomb somewhere safe, somewhere away from your [marriage] partner, where you can defuse or release that anger bomb in whatever way works best for you. (It may involve going on a long run, getting in a good workout at the gym, or taking a walk in the park. Or maybe it’s having a heart-to-heart talk with a close friend, hanging out in a pleasant social setting, doing an hour of yoga, practicing some deep meditative breathing, or listening to music).
“What does an anger exit strategy look like? It’s essentially a calm, preplanned alternative to blowing up or storming off wordlessly [such as is listed above]. (From the Marriage.com article, “Is Anger Poisoning Your Relationship”)
On this de-escalating matter of taking a time out, Trish Alderman recommends:
• “Take a break. There are physiological changes in our body in the midst of conflict and it takes time for those ‘freeze, flight, or fight’ responses to diminish. Sometimes the best way to de-escalate conflict is to first take care of the physical and emotional reactions. Breathe deeply to relax. Take a walk, or distract yourself with Sudoku or Solitaire. …Just give yourself the time and space necessary to come back to the problem with renewed energy and a clear head.” (From the Life Strategies article, “10 Tips For De-escalating Conflict”)
What if your spouse doesn’t want to take a break?
Now sometimes your spouse won’t want to take a time out. He or she feels like the issue needs to be resolved right then. Some spouses do dig in their heals like that. But “as far as it depends upon you” do what you can to convince him or her that it is to their best interest to let you remove yourself from the argument at that time.
I’ve told Steve, “Trust me; you won’t want to go further with this matter at this time. I need a break. Things will get ugly if I don’t get one. I need to pray and talk to God before we talk about this further.”
Steve HAS tried to push the matter sometimes. But he has since learned not to do that because it HAS gotten ugly. And sometimes I’ve foolishly pushed him. Again, it has gotten ugly. Both of us are wrong when we do this.
Actually, we’re PUSHING each other to SIN when we push at the other to respond when they need time to recompose themselves.
We’re told in the Bible, “Be angry and do not sin.” Our spouse shouldn’t push us to keep arguing when our mindset isn’t in a good place. We’ll have more of a tendency to walk into sin. And we shouldn’t push them to do so either.
If you can’t get your spouse to back off, try to get your spouse to pause. Then PRACTICE the PAUSE for a few moments. And ask him or her to pray with you before you proceed any further.
If your spouse won’t pray with you, take a moment to pause, and YOU silently pray for composed, wise thinking and listening.
Even a short prayer, genuinely lifted up can help. Try it!
More De-escalating Tips:
And then here are a few more tips for you when your marital conflict needs de-escalating:
• “Watch your body language and tone. Painful, destructive confrontations do not just consist of hurtful words and insults. Shouting and screaming or an aggressive, standoffish stance can do just as much damage as harsh words spoken. Sometimes, without even noticing, a person will raise their tone. Or they will adopt a belligerent stance. Pay attention to how you hold yourself. Also, speak in a calm, neutral, polite voice. Whatever the nature of the discussion, maintaining a friendly attitude will indicate that you do not want the argument to escalate.” (Marni Feuerman, from her article, “6 Practical Tips to Defuse Arguments in Your Marriage”)
Plus, another de-escalating tactic can be to:
• “Make your voice softer. One way to calm your loved one down is to make your voice softer. This forces them to have to stop and listen to what you are saying. … And stay calm yourself. The calmer you are, the better your chances are that your loved one will get calm as well. Maybe not right away, but given time, this can work. It will at least keep your stress lower. And it will give you more of a chance to think of a way out.” (David Oliver, from his article, “Fastest Way to Deal with Your Loved One’s BiPolar Anger”)
Also, beware of “Right Fighting.” You risk the danger of escalating the conflict when you hang onto a fighting stance of being unwilling to back off until your spouse states that you are right.
Handling a Volatile Situation?
In closing, this de-escalating info comes from the article, STOP YELLING AT ME! How to De-escalate an Intense Argument. See what you can use that will help you:
“Are there ways to handle volatile situations? While there is no perfect way to calm an explosive moment, rehearsing and memorizing a couple of phrases to say during explosive times can help try to break a negative cycle. The goals are:
1) To calm down the interaction—de-escalate the fight before it gets worse.
2) Use words that communicate you are not abandoning or punishing.
3) Know you have the right to set healthy limits and boundaries. [You can go to the bolded link in the title above to learn more.]
We realize this is not an all-inclusive article. We wish we had more for you. But we believe it’s a good start to help you on the journey to arguing with each other in healthy ways. Arguing is actually a “normal” thing for married couples to do… within reason. But it can get out of hand. Yes, it’s normal to disagree with each other. It’s what you do with those disagreements that determine if you are handling them in healthy ways.
If your fights need de-escalating, make this your mission. Do what you can to calm things down. Find ways to marry your differences. You are marriage partners, not adversaries. Keep your priorities aligned with God’s.
“May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.” (2 Peter 1:2)
Cindy and Steve Wright
— ADDITIONALLY —
To help you further, we give a lot of personal stories, humor, and more practical tips in our book, 7 ESSENTIALS to Grow Your Marriage. We hope you will pick up a copy for yourself. (It’s available both electronically and in print form.) Plus, it can make a great gift for someone else. It gives you the opportunity to help them grow their marriage. And who doesn’t need that? Just click on the linked title or the picture below:
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