You can have every intention of keeping your cool during a fight with your partner, but it’s hard to keep that resolve in the heat of the moment, when—hold on—what did you just say?! No, you listen to me!
“The reason fights escalate is that we’re not really thinking anymore,” says Sharon Rivkin, MA, MFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Santa Rosa, CA, and author of Breaking the Argument Cycle. “We get so enraged that we don’t take time to think about what we’re saying. And those moments where we just think without speaking are where damage gets done in a relationship.”
To prevent a spat from doing permanent damage, try the following tips. If you control your emotions, your partner will be more likely to follow suit.
Take a seat.
“It sounds simple-minded, but always make sure you’re seated when having a discussion,” says W. Robert Nay, PhD, a McLean, VA–based clinical psychologist and author of Taking Charge of Anger: Six Steps to Asserting Yourself Without Losing Control. “It sends a message to your brain that you are relaxed,” he adds. Even more effective: If you’re in a heated fight with your partner, try lying down on your bed and continuing the discussion. This position signals safety, security, and rest—it’s an instant rage-quasher.
Tell your body to chill.
Your chest tightens. Your throat feels constricted. Your face grows warm. When you’re angry, adrenaline triggers all of these fight-or-flight responses—making a calm, measured discussion all but impossible. To return your body and mind to neutral state, close your eyes, take a deep breath into your belly, and let it go slowly, counting backward from 10 to 1. “When you breathe like that, it tricks your brain into believing you’re in a much safer place and you need to be in a much lower level of arousal,” Nay says.
Instead of rushing to strike back when your partner says something outrageous—”You hate spending time with my family!”—ask what they mean, Nay suggests. “Say, ‘Excuse me, I’m confused; could you clarify that?’ Almost always the other person will reframe it and rethink how they staged it.” Also, if you don’t hold your tongue and hear your partner out, you can’t expect him or her to, either.
Take a time out.
When confronted, remember you don’t have to engage immediately. “If you tell yourself, ‘I can take some time to think about what’s going on—I don’t have to express everything I’m feeling right now,’ you can really change the energy,” Rivkin says. And forget that tired adage “don’t go to sleep angry.” Some time spent cooling off is almost always a good thing. The next morning, that argument that seemed like such a big deal the night before may not even be worth revisiting.
Remember you love each other.
“Take a minute to remind yourself, ‘My partner’s a good person. They’re probably not really out to get me,'” says Rivkin. “If you believe this, you can tell yourself, ‘I don’t have to take this all so personally.'”