Have you ever been mid-argument with your partner and thought, “WHEN did this turn into a big fight?”, “HOW did this get so serious?”, or “WHY are we even yelling about this?”
If that sounds familiar, you and/or your partner may be converting molehills into mountains: turning a small issue into a much bigger deal by allowing disagreements to escalate for reasons beyond the disagreement itself (e.g. tone, assumptions, misunderstandings, and confusion.).
This is a common problem we hear among couples, and it doesn’t just go away over time. There are specific things you and/or your partner may be doing – both during and outside of the arguments – that could be contributing to these issues.
The good news is that with intention, practice, and patience, a lot of the “heat” in your heated arguments can be cooled down. You can address issues quicker, easier, and with less built-up resentment – and maybe even with a little more humor!
These strategies have been immensely helpful for us as we’ve worked on our conflict resolution over the years, and we hope they help you avoid having a big fight the next time you’re discussing a small issue in your relationship!
You’ve probably heard of the phrase “pick your battles wisely”, meaning only bring things up when you really care about it. Otherwise, it may seem like you are trying to address too much, too often. Ugh. Whatever… We don’t believe in this.
We believe in this phrase instead: “Pick your issues, and don’t make them into battles”. People tend to shrug things off when they don’t want to have a fight, instead of addressing things in a manner in which they don’t have to turn it into an actual “fight”.
The problem with shrugging things off and “picking your battles” is that you may be able to do that temporarily, but if you actually care about something that your partner did or said, your emotional self will not forget it. You will likely hold that within. And then the next thing you do address won’t just be about that specific issue; it’ll be about that issue and the one you shrugged off, even if you don’t explicitly want it to be.
This situation, in turn, can lead to a more snarky or aggressive tone, more irritability, more impatience and – if this cycle continues – major resentment overtime.
Fighting sucks; but well-conducted disagreements are necessary, revealing, and healthy.
Whether you are the one with the issue or the one on “defense”, watch your tone. A snarky, judgemental, aggressive, impatient, loud, defensive, or otherwise negative tone can put anyone on the defense, thus increasing the chance of misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and unproductive communication all around.
Side note: This is also why you should avoid bringing up or responding to an issue over text message.
For the remaining tips, your role in how an issue plays out depends on whether you are:
If You Are The Aggrieved Party :
Often a negative tone comes into play when someone has made an assumption about what the other person did or why they did it.
But discussions and disagreements should never be about being right or making your partner feel bad or guilty. They should be about coming to a mutual understanding about why something happened, and then figuring out the best way to avoid that event (or the feelings created from that event) in the future.
This means that assumptions should never be at the forefront of these discussions. Trust that your partner had no malicious intent by asking questions about what you are upset about, instead of simply attacking what they did or emphasizing why you think they did it.
In addition to asking questions and getting more information (thus a better understanding) of why your partner did what they did, you should also prioritize discussing how you feel regarding their actions and answers (as opposed to just focusing on what they did).
Again, this is about trust. For example, if your partner talked to someone at a party for an uncomfortably long time, you should trust that they did not do that out of disloyalty, disrespect, or however it came off to you. Thus, the issue addressed shouldn’t be “YOU did this”, but “I FELT this”.
That doesn’t mean that whatever they did was necessarily “right”, especially in terms of your personal relationship rules and boundaries. And it doesn’t mean that you should automatically compromise on that behavior and/or accept repeated offenses…
It simply means that the method for tackling future behavior will be more about what you’re both comfortable with, and how you feel – which isn’t something that can be argued with – as opposed to some greater sense of “right” and “wrong”, which can almost always be argued with.
Do you want…
An apology? An explanation? To simply share how you feel with no response? To have your questions answered?
Sometimes when people are told that they did something wrong, they begin to explain, just because they don’t know what else to do. If you state what you want early on as the “aggrieved” partner, it will make it easier and more comfortable for your partner to respond accordingly. This way, your partner has less impetus to become defensive, which would potentially make you more upset and escalate the argument.
Asking for what you want is a habit that is important during these discussions, but also in everyday life as a way to prevent conflict, tension, and misunderstandings in the first place. Similar to avoiding assumptions, asking for what you want prevents confusion and the pressure to “read each other’s minds”.
In addition to asking specifically for what you want, remember that you don’t have to continue the conversation until you feel heard, validated, and respected.
If your partner begins to get defensive, express a negative tone, raise their voice, or gaslight you, say that you won’t accept it. You can simply say, in a calm and matter-of-fact tone, “don’t talk to me like that”, “you’re being defensive”, or “how you are responding is not why I brought this up”.
It’s better to pause or delay the discussion than have a heated, less efficient one.
If You Are The Offender:
Whenever your partner says something you did hurt them in any way, pause. Reflect. Then validate. Don’t be so quick to explain.
We know – you didn’t mean to do that, you didn’t mean to make them feel that way, and your intention was of course different than their interpretation. We get it.
But most of the time, unless they specifically ask for it, an explanation is not the primary reason they are telling you. Most people just want to be heard and want their feelings, thoughts, interpretation, and beliefs understood – especially if they’ve been hurt.
Validate your partner’s feelings by repeating to them what they just told you and demonstrating that you’ve heard and understood them. You can say something along the lines of “Thank you for sharing that”, “I understand why you feel that way”, and/or “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings in that way”. This type of validation can make all the difference when it comes to how the rest of your conversation unfolds.
If you’re too quick to explain – jumping immediately to phrases such as “I didn’t mean to do that” or “Well I did that because”., etc., you may come off as being defensive, or even dismissive.
If you are not the “aggrieved”, your take on the issue is not of immediate concern. Your partner’s issue should be prioritized and validated before anything is further addressed. Otherwise, the aggrieved party (your partner) will have even more of a reason to feel aggrieved, which is obviously the opposite of what you really want.
Once it is an appropriate time to explain the situation (i.e. once the aggrieved party is ready and willing to hear it), it’s helpful to explain in a way that is matter-of-fact. Avoid coming off as defensive, especially if you agree that you shouldn’t have done what you did.
The purpose of the explanation, in this case, is not to get you “off the hook” or blame someone else. Thus, it should not use language that sounds like you’re defending yourself. Alternatively, the purpose of this explanation is for the both of you to figure out what went wrong, and how a similar situation can be avoided in the future.
On the other hand, if you really don’t agree with your partner’s interpretation of the situation, you may feel more rightly justified in “defending” your actions, but a defensive tone is still not very helpful. You can simply – kindly – state how you feel about the situation and why you did what you did from your perspective. An honest and calm explanation – “I did this because…” – without a negative tone may work well in these situations. You shouldn’t have to feel defensive if you don’t feel like what you did was wrong.
Defensive explanations can also sound like gaslighting, i.e. making your partner feel bad or guilty for feeling the way they do. Phrases like “I only did it because you…” or “you don’t have to look at it that way” or “if you would have just…” are all included in this category. Please avoid these types of phrases at all cost.
A key to avoiding a big fight is to apologize appropriately, which will depend on the circumstance and how you genuinely feel.
If you realize that what you did was “wrong” (for your relationship), don’t start by saying “I didn’t mean to do that.” And definitely don’t say “I’m sorry you feel that way”. Just say “I’m sorry”. It’s that simple.
If you don’t agree that what you did was “wrong”, only apologize if your apology makes sense to you and will be genuine. Otherwise, simply acknowledge what they said and validate their feelings, because again, how they feel is not something you can agree or disagree with. And you want to at least make sure your partner feels heard before explaining.
Perhaps it will sound like something along these lines, “I’m sorry that what I did made you feel that way. Would you like to know why I did it? Here is why I did it […] That said, I do/do not want to continue doing it for this reason. Does this conclusion seem okay with you?”
If You’re Both Equally Upset:
John’s mother taught him a great lesson that we have both found immensely helpful and also astonishingly simple: “Only one person can be mad at a time”.
You may both end up in a situation where you equally feel aggrieved or hurt. But the person you want to prioritize is the person who brought up the situation, issue, or complaint first. If the other partner feels they have more of a reason to be upset, then they should have brought up their concerns first.
A simple example of this may be a dispute about who does what chores and how they are done. This might be an area in which both partners are unsatisfied. But according to this rule, the order of how it is addressed should be based on whoever initiated the conversation. Not only is this rule logical, it also incentivizes being upfront about your concerns and not “shrugging things off”, as previously discussed.
Alternatively, if the other partner becomes upset at something that has arisen from a current conversation, that issue should be discussed once the primary issue is settled.
For example, if “Partner A” snooped on “Partner B”’s phone and saw something that upset them, then brings it up to Partner B, Partner B may be reasonably upset that Partner A snooped on their phone in the first place. However, under this rule, Partner A’s issue would be addressed first. This does not at all mean that Partner A’s action of snooping should be justified or dismissed; it simply means that it is a secondary issue that should have its own space for Partner B to express their feelings about. This ensures that discussions aren’t convoluted with multiple topics at once, which usually causes additional confusion and frustration, thus increasing the change of it escalating to a full blown fight.
Ultimately, this scenario has to truly be a team effort. This requires respect, patience, and understanding more than anything else on this list, given that there are negative emotions coming from both ends.
I hope this post helps the next time one or both of you has an issue you’d like to address. Don’t hesitate to bring it up for fear of it blowing up and becoming “this huge thing”. Simply follow this advice (and let us know how it goes in the comments)!
If you have any other tips you’d like to share, feel free to share those in the comments as well.
Loving the old; exploring the new,