Jan 19, 2015

How To Stop Any Argument In Its Tracks (Yes, Really)

Fights happen in all relationships and they are a completely healthy occurrence. But are you engaging in them in a way that might be doing long-term damage to your partnership?

And what if you knew how to swiftly and accurately defuse any fight from escalating? Well, wouldn’t that just be nifty! I’ll tell you how in a second. But first, we have to understand what we’re working with here.

Take these situations for example…

1. A woman gets angry at her husband because he didn’t inform her that they had been out of milk for a couple of days.

2. A man gets upset with his girlfriend because she decides to go on a week-long vacation without him.

3. A man shuts down and becomes verbally unresponsive when his wife gets upset with him about bringing home the wrong kind of lightbulbs.

It’s all too easy to cast blame on one or both of the partners in question by labelling one as selfish, or insecure, or any number of undesirable character traits… but there’s something happening under the surface in every one of the situations listed above.

You see… whether we’re talking about the three examples above, or any argument that you may currently have had or are currently having…

The argument isn’t about what the argument is about. It’s about the underlying hurt emotion that isn’t being expressed explicitly. 

So for example #1 with the woman who is upset about the milk, she may be outwardly expressing anger or frustration, but in reality she is feeling inadequate as a mother because she feels like she is already falling behind in the maintenance of her home life. That she hadn’t noticed the shortage of a staple in the family diet was, to her, further evidence that she is a failure as a mother and a partner.

For example #2, the man gets upset with his girlfriend because he has the underlying belief that she is far too good for him as a partner and he sees her not consulting with him as further proof that she doesn’t think of him (or care about him) on a daily basis.

For example #3, the man shuts down and becomes verbally unresponsive because he was constantly criticized in his childhood for not doing anything right and for being stupid (when in reality nothing could be further from the truth) and so he shuts down and goes numb to weather the pain of feeling worthless.

So what are you to learn from these examples, and from the underlying theme that fights aren’t about what they’re ‘about’?

Follow the following three steps and I promise you that you will be able to stop any argument in its tracks. And, if you use them consistently, your entire relationship will run more smoothly.

1. Recognize the pattern

The first step is always awareness.

If you’re not sure what your exact triggers are, think back to the last time that you felt angry/frustrated/upset with your partner (or upset with an argument that you were having). Go back to it and try to access what you were feeling in the moment.

2. Point the flashlight in the corner

Once you remember the last argument and the feeling that it evoked in you consciously, it’s time to go deeper.

Inevitably there was the emotion that you may have been showing externally (anger, frustration, withdrawal, etc.) and then there was the emotion that you were trying to run away from or suppress.

Sit with that feeling and really try to feel in to what that suppressed emotion was. Where can you feel it in your body? What does it feel like? What would the emotion say if it had words to speak with?

I like to think of this step as pointing the flashlight into the corner. Imagine you are going up to clear old junk out of your attic. There might be corners that you’re a bit nervous to point the flashlight into… but you must. This is where the good stuff is hidden. Until you face the underlying emotional need you and your partner may be stuck in an unconscious pattern where you repeat the same damaging cycle over and over.

A quick example would be if you feel like your partner is verbally/emotionally attacking you during an argument, and you lash out with anger. But in reality, the emotion you are trying to hold on to is one or any combination of hurt, sadness, fear, loneliness, desperate, invisible, rejected, or inadequate.

This can often be a difficult step to self-diagnose since humans are unaware of their own blind spots… so feel free to reach out and chat if you want help diagnosing what your emotional triggers are.

3. Work through it as a team

Once you realize what the underlying emotional need is (generally the more scary and vulnerable one) it’s your job to let your partner in on the secret. This can be a scary step and it’s one that takes a lot of courage to bring forth to your partner.

I find that it helps to bring this emotional need up to your partner (at least the first time) once the dust has settled from your argument.

Telling them something along the lines of “So yesterday when I got upset with you about the milk… listen, I’m really sorry. I lashed out at you and it wasn’t even about the milk. It’s just that sometimes I freak out because I feel like I’m not doing a good enough job as a parent and I’m really hard on myself. I’ll try to catch it in the moment more often, but I just wanted you to know that I wasn’t upset with you at all… I was just feeling insecure and kind of scared.”

Now, unless you’re with a monster of a partner, most significant others would be quite relieved to hear that piece of feedback. Knowing that the argument was about an unspoken emotional need being unmet (which, hint, they essentially all are) gives the receiving partner the awareness of that pattern for the future and helps them to de-escalate that cycle going forward.

As your ‘thing’ comes up in future arguments, knowing that you can recognize, call out, and work through the underlying hurt emotions together puts you back on the same team. It’s an empowering mindset to be able to work through the negative pattern together versus feeling like it runs your relationship.

If you have any questions, or you think you need help figuring out what your emotional triggers are and what they stem from, you can always reach out and have a chat with me.

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