warning sign for curve in the road ahead taken in Camp Meeker near Occidental, CA

How to Stop an Argument

Many couples who first come into therapy are stuck in a cycle of conflict. They often feel disconnected with each other and in particular cannot seem to prevent or step out of the adversarial cycle that looms over them. Certain hot-button topics are in fact certain to invoke their negative cycle. So what is a couple to do when they find themselves stuck, spinning their wheels in the sand? The answer is get some traction. The best way to get traction and get back on the road is to build some tools - awareness and common language -  and then use them with your partner to get back on the road.

Build Awareness

The first step to preventing the conflict from escalating is building awareness that you and your partner in fact have your own negative cycle. Dr. Sue Johnson, Emotion Focused Therapy pioneer refers to this cycle generally as "The Demon Dialogues" and she has a unique name for each particular type of conflict couples get stuck in. Other notables in the field of couples work also recognize that in order to wrangle the cycle, it is important to be aware that there is a process that has taken over. It can help to call it out, name your own negative cycle. This way you and your partner are both building awareness and developing common language that you can use to talk about it when it shows up.

Writer, couple therapist and clinical psychologist Dan Wile talks about this as creating a meta level or a platform, a place out of the fray that the couple can look at the problem as separate from the content.

"Every couple has its own set of unsolvable problems that they grapple with throughout the relationship. Creating a platform—operating as joint troubleshooters—is the premier way to deal with such problems. Operating as troubleshooters, you commiserate over your unsolvable problems and put them in perspective." Daniel B. Wile

Process vs. Content

Who first notices that an argument is beginning? Once you both have agreed that you have a cycle and that cycle takes over, whomever first notices an argument beginning can make a "process comment", a comment that brings awareness to both of you that your negative cycle is starting. This can help you both get onto a platform (process) above the problem (the content) so the two of you can decide together not to go off  into the sand. Wichever of you first notices that the argument is beginning can bring awareness by saying something to your partner like "Hey Sweetie, it seems like we are starting that cycle where we go off into the sand and get stuck spinning our wheels. Do you want to work with me see if we could not do that this time? It just destroys us..."

The bottom line is that it is not what you are arguing about, how you argue that is so destructive. Becoming aware that you have a negative cycle and building a common language can help gain some traction - ideally before you get too far off into the sand. 

Could you and your partner come up with a name that aptly describes your cycle?