10 Surefire Ways To Turn A Small Fight Into A Big One

bombIt’s no secret. Couples have fights.

But not all fights are created equal. Some start small and stay small while others pick up steam as they go and leave a mess in their wake.

And the difference in outcomes is not random.

Have you ever seen a fight coming a mile away and done nothing to stop it?

Or worse, just for the heck of it you did your best to provoke it?

Sometimes we’re like that. We’re short-fused or irritable or maybe we’re bored. Or, as a friend likes to say, we’re simply a fight looking for something to pick itself on.

Other times, the last thing we want is yet another knock-down-drag-out about unloading the dishwasher, but we feel powerless to stop it.

The truth is: we’re not.

Most of us know our partner’s hot buttons and sore spots. We know the very words that will send them into a whirl and we know the perfect moment to say them. We know when to sigh and which face to make, and we’re flat out kidding ourselves if we’re surprised by the consequences.

If I were to come home from work and before saying hello I pointed out the half-opened mail on the counter and my husband’s shoes underfoot we’d be on shaky ground. Add a third complaint and, well…


Marital fights are a lot like road trips. How the journey unfolds— whether it’s hair-raising or arduous, whether it turns out to have been a waste of time or a worthwhile adventure— has everything to do with which roads we choose and which ones we avoid.

When it comes to conflict, most of us repeatedly travel the same rutted, pot-hole-laden, poorly-marked roads that bring us to the same dizzying roundabouts or frustrating dead ends. To make matters worse, each time we do we claim we can’t stand the trip.

One of the best ways to learn how to keep our fights small is to understand what we do to make them big. Check out this list of strategies that are guaranteed to make your fights feel like a descent into hell.

How many of these winning moves apply to you?

1 – When things are getting heated, refuse to step back or cool down.
The best way to turn a small misunderstanding into a barn burner is to keep going when things are getting out of control. If your commitment is to have a healthy and respectful relationship, you’d be wise to put a concerted effort into quieting yourself down. Try taking a deep breath or a ten minute time out.

When we’re too flooded to think straight, we’re not in a state to say or do much that’s constructive.

2- Claim that you’re “just” expressing your feelings when engaging in blame.
Take a moment to think about this one. Have you ever started a sentence with  “I feel…” and followed it with the word YOU?

Such as:

I feel like this whole thing is your fault.
I feel like you’re not listening.
I feel that you should apologize.

Or my number one favorite: I feel like you’re a jerk.

Unless the words “I feel” precede an expression of genuine feeling— like mad sad, glad, scared— what you’re communicating is a thought or a judgement.

3- Insist that you’re right. It is your fault!
Right and wrong is a common trap for many couples. The trouble with insisting you’re right is that by default, your partner is wrong. Why be adversaries when you can be friends?

4- Haul out every injustice and wrongdoing that has ever occurred.
While it may well be that you’re married to a person with an abundance of flaws, you’re best to discuss them one at a time. It may be temporarily satisfying to build a huge case against your partner, but know that it’s a guaranteed way to inflame the situation as well as damage trust and destroy goodwill.

5- Take everything your partner says as a personal attack.
Being asked to take out the garbage isn’t the same thing as being told you’re a lousy husband. It’s common to hear a request as a criticism, especially if you don’t feel all that secure in yourself. It’s also common to think that your partner’s every reaction is about you. It’s not. In fact, most of what our partners say when they’re upset is about what’s happening with them: their reactions, their anxiety and their attempts to stay safe.

6- Wipe the subject right off the table.
When the going gets rough, people often derail the conversation with a comment like, “I don’t know why we’re taking about my overspending while you’re over there drinking three glasses of wine every night.”

7- Claim that your partner is being a bully (and then go on the attack).

This one may seem obvious but the truth is that many of us are blind to our own intensity and aggression. Some of the meanest, nastiest things I’ve heard are said while accusing someone else of being mean and nasty.

8- Throw up your hands and storm out of the room.
There’s no better way to get your partner’s goat than to shut down the discussion by fleeing the scene. If you’re stepping out to cool off, that’s another thing entirely. If you’re bailing in midstream, consider it foul play.

9- Storm back in and suggest that you get a divorce.
This one is even worse than point #8. Using the divorce card when you’ve hit your frustration level will have repercussions you may not anticipate. Divorce is a serious subject. I’ve heard clients say they’ll never forget the time their spouse tossed out the “D” word, expecting that one day he or she would make good on the threat. Besides being deeply hurtful, making threats and not following through reduces your credibility to zero.  You want to be taken seriously, don’t you?

10- Refuse to take any responsibility for your part of the mess.
If I had to pick the one most common complaint clients have, it would be this: “My partner is unwilling to see her part.”  Quite often, they’re right.

Though we’re not responsible for our partner’s actions and reactions, we are responsible for how we respond. One of the greatest gifts we can give to each other is to honestly examine the role we play and to seek ways to pay attention to our behavior and raise our standards.

Conflict is inevitable in our intimate relationships. But the nature of our conflicts— how productive they are or how much damage they do— is fully in our hands.

Even if our partner is still jonesing for a fight.

The question is this: Are you willing to have even one more terrible, miserable fight now that you know there’s an alternative?

Please share your thoughts!

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21 thoughts on “10 Surefire Ways To Turn A Small Fight Into A Big One

  1. There you go again, Winifred, writing easy-to-read, entertaining, and useful advice posts. Liked the images too, especially the one about your husband.

    What is it about the half-opened mail, of which I too am guilty on more than the odd occasion? I feel that you ladies are completely unreasonable about this.

    Sorry—couldn’t resist. I’ll just go to bed now. Cheers.


  2. Winifred — I love your writing style! Of your list the one I like that is not often on this kind of list is the idea of raising only one issue at a time (#4). I like to think of that as getting in to our lawyerly prosecutor mode — setting up an air tight case to prove our righteousness and the other person’s guilt. The problem, of course, is that there is no judge or jury and trying to win is the best thing one can do to further damage the relationship!


  3. This was crazy in that while I was reading your post I was paused to participate in a very heated argument with my spouse. I must admit I do not back down when things are blowing up. I’ve tried it before but my husband is the type that will say things to provoke me into entering the ring once again. How do I counter something like that? And I know we shouldn’t point the finger on whose to blame but what if the other person really is to blame and won’t acknowledge it without having something to blame you for something as well?…I know such immature fighting…and to think we’ve been married for 23 years one should know better right;-)

    Knowing is not always enough we need to actually do better.



    • “…will say things to provoke me into entering the ring once again. ”

      There’s your point of intervention – you’re allowing yourself to be provoked. While you’ve got some alone time, take a step back from a hypothetical scenario, pause it if you will, and ask yourself, “what do I need in order to stay out of the ring? What do I need such that I’m provoked less and less by these things he says?” Basically, go meta on yourself. Give yourself time to sort through the answers your mind comes up with. It may take more than just one exercise in internal thought to get cohesive ideas.

      There’s also one external thing you can do when he tries to provoke you – tell him you need a time out. If he persists, say firmly, “I’m going to give myself 10-15 minutes to cool off in another room. I need you to respect that. I love you.” And then head to your time out space.

      Sometimes, it really is the other person who’s doing 95% of the making things worse. Even then, you have some power to make things better.


      • I wrote that straight off the cuff, and I’m used to facebook where I can go back and edit. So please consider a slightly alternate point of view on provocation:
        Heading back into the ring when he says certain things is, for the nonce, the best response that you have. To a certain degree, it works for you. Take a moment and thank yourself for being couragous and rising to the challenge! Sometimes, stepping back into the ring is exactly what’s needed. What it sounds like you want is some flexibility, some more options besides stepping back in. After thanking yourself, ask yourself for other possible options.


      • For even more layers, consider also the insincere apology, the sincere-sounding apology that results in no actual behavior change, and the “I’m sorry you feel that way, but you’re responsible for your own feelings” un-apology. While I agree that people are responsible for their own feelings, I also equally believe that the meaning of a communication is the response that one gets.


  4. Oops! A few bad moves on my side. But one of my winning moves is humor. Like a quick reminder of a private joke. It usually moves mountains of arguments. Plus a good laugh is supposed to be healthy for our bodies too. So…


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