When conflict and fighting are the dominant dynamics in your relationship, you may feel like it’s a hopeless and impossible situation to break out of. However, it is possible to stop the cycle of fighting in your relationship. I often remind my clients that if you break a circle anywhere it’s no longer a circle. When you take your relationship out of conflict autopilot mode, you can break the negative pattern. This shift will give you the chance to understand the triggers and reactions which have been harmful. And that will allow you to then introduce healthier, more constructive communication dynamics into your relationship.
Fight Or Flight Response In Relationships
The 90/10 principle states that 90% of your responses toward your partner are rooted in your personal history, culture, or trauma while 10% is actually about your partner. Put another way, the majority of triggers come from the “baggage” you carry. Only a small percentage of triggers relate to what just occurred between you and your partner. Despite this being a small number, it’s perceived as a real big deal, it’s like a landmine that someone steps on and explodes.
So what’s behind the strong reaction? It has a lot to do with how our brains are wired for conflict. Your nervous system’s only concern is to keep you alive. It does not care about relationships, careers, friends, or any social constructs of modern life. Conflict is perceived as a threat in our brains. The perceived threat triggers a fight or flight response. It’s exactly the same response as if a wild animal is attacking you. It may seem like an exaggeration but this is simply how our nervous system works. When you’re arguing with your spouse, you are perceiving your partner as a wild animal who’s about to pounce and your priority is to avoid the threat by lashing back or retreating to safety.
Two Steps To Neutralize An Argument
While fight or flight is a good way to deal with an immediate situation, it does not help you improve the way you and your spouse communicate or relate to one another. If you’re always mad at your spouse or are holding on to resentment, it’s a sure sign there’s a communication breakdown. Fortunately there are 2 simple steps to stop any argument and give yourselves a chance to resolve your conflict constructively.
Step 1: Take a timeout to stop it from getting worse. The best way to deal with fighting is to call a timeout. Think of it as triage for your relationship. Take a pause to prevent a bad situation from spiraling out of control. You must be in the right state of mind to have a reasonable conversation.
Step 2: Suggest a time to come back and repair. After you’ve both had some time to cool off, come together to talk about what happened and how you can move forward. It’s typically best to do this within a day of the fight. This way it’s still reasonably fresh in your mind but you’ve also had some time to calm down and gather your thoughts.
How To Prevent The Cycle Of Fighting
Now that you know how to stop an argument from escalating, you can work on preventing the cycle of fighting from persisting. Take a step back and identify the actual trigger or triggers which sparked the argument. It’s usually not doing the dishes that couples are arguing about. What is the underlying cause for your argument? Is it feeling unequal? Why do you feel this way? Do you feel sensitive about equality in your relationship because of the historical context of your family where your father didn’t value your mother? This is a clear example of the 90/10 principle at work.
Once you understand intentionality, set yourself and your spouse up for more positive interactions. Make time to watch a movie, schedule a date, or spend time together on a hobby you both enjoy. See if you can slowly build up the positive experiences such that they outnumber negative ones. The Gottman Institute identified the magic 5:1 relationship ratio – have 5 positive interactions for every 1 negative one. This may seem difficult if you’ve been stuck in a cycle of fighting, but make it a goal to work your way up to it.
In any relationship, there will be negative experiences and conflicts. It takes intentional effort to create positivity once the honeymoon phase is over. We overlook many faults or annoyances at the start of a relationship but eventually day-to-day life takes hold, and with it come challenges and disagreements. To prevent yourselves from sliding into a cycle of fighting, identify and stop the weak points when they arise. And then communicate what’s going on, what you’re looking for, and ways to make things better. If you’re struggling with repairing communication issues, you may find it helpful to work with a couples therapist.