The Hot Headed Couple’s Guide to Keeping Your Cool in a Fight

Humbling, isn’t it?couple-arguing

There you are, you and your perfectly otherwise sane spouse arguing, yet again, about…what? The quickest route to the freeway? The proper way to stack dish towels? Whose fault it is that you’re even having an argument?

It’s enough to make you, well, crazy, right?

Let me guess. You’ve had this same fight, what… ten thousand times? And each time you wind up at the same miserable dead end: worn out, frustrated, wondering if the two of you were put on earth just to drive each other nuts.

What’s worse, you know it’s utterly pointless. Or at least one part of you knows. Only, that part takes a vacation when you need it the most.

You’ve heard it, right… that little voice in your head telling you — no begging you — to just quiet down?

It’s not worth it, it tells you. Take a deep breath. Why bother getting yourself all in a twist?

Of course, you ought to calm down! Of course, you ought to unhook!

But, but… another voice argues, and the next thing you know, you’re full-on sucked in.

Think you married the wrong person?
Worried it’s hopeless?

Probably not.

Remember — all couples have conflict. There’s no getting around it. And much of our conflict is about nothing that matters.

Marriage is challenging and we’re all, in our own ways, difficult to live with.

Yes, even you.

Granted, you may be married to someone who has even more trouble staying steady than you do. Maybe you married a screamer or door slammer, or someone who goes silent and just shoots dirty looks. Or you married a blamer or name caller with too short a fuse. Maybe, by comparison, you look like a saint.

Then again, maybe you are the firecracker and your spouse is, at least sometimes, the cool-headed one.

Either way, even the most hot-tempered among us can learn to dial down the heat.

Here’s how:

1. Take charge.

The good news is that only one of you needs to know how to calm down in order to keep a fight from spiraling up. It’s impossible to have a good rollicking fight when one person is taking slow deep breaths and keeping her feet on the ground. Add zipping her lips, and no matter how worked up the other is getting, without fuel the quarrel will fizzle out.

2. Hold your tongue.

Don’t think that just because you’re angry you have to “let it all out.” Our words and actions have an impact. When fired-up, we’re more likely to be mean, to exaggerate, to take aim with an intention to hurt.

58277187114323522856Though there’s no evidence that couples who fight are more likely to divorce than couples who don’t, fighting that leads to bitterness, resentment and a sense of futility erodes a couples goodwill, which over time may well lead to divorce.

If you’re getting nasty, take a time-out before you do damage.

3. Acknowledge your limits.

When one or both of you are agitated, know that you’re in the “getting worked-up phase,” not the “working it out phase.” When heated, we’re unreasonable — as in unable to reason. Once threatened, as we are during a conflict, the rational part of our brain is overpowered by the fight-or-flight part of our brain and we’re more reptile than human. We can’t work things out when we’re focused on our survival rather than on making up.

4. HALT.

Borrowed from my friends in AA, HALT stands for hungry, angry, lonely and tired — the four states of high vulnerability. When you’re hungry, tired, and, I’ll add stressed out, you’re going to be much less resilient and therefore less able to keep your reactivity in check. Rather than continue to rev up, take a brisk walk, eat a sandwich, or go take a nap.

5. Read the signs.

Though tension can (and often does) mount quickly, if you pay close attention, you’ll learn to recognize when your anxiety is ratcheting up. Maybe your thoughts swirl or you feel dizzy or sweat rolls down your back. Or you get tingly and feel like jumping out of your skin. The sooner you start calming yourself, the more successful you’ll be. It’s much harder, though not impossible, to get ahold of yourself when you’re almost ready to blow.

6. Sometimes it’s you.

If you’re the one getting agitated, pause to reflect on what’s getting you so bent out of shape. Yes, your partner left the milk out on the counter again, but why go through the roof?

Keep in mind that the more fired-up you are the more likely it is that your upset in the present is being fueled by old hurts and feelings from your past. Say you were viewed as the family troublemaker or told you were needy or demanding or not very smart. Arguments with your spouse are likely to ignite those old wounds. Yes, your spouse may be frustrating, but it’s your responsibility to become less reactive and address the injuries you brought with you from the past.

7. Sometimes it’s not.

If your partner is escalating, do your best to keep calm. Often, we make a bad situation worse by making inflammatory comments (Oh brother! Here you go again… what’s your problem now?) or mistakenly thinking we need to “fight back.” Instead of arguing or defending yourself or lobbing grenades, trying slowing things down.

You might say, This is going downhill. Let’s take a break. Or, Let’s back up and try it again. Or, I see you’re really upset. I want to be helpful but it’s hard when you’re yelling.

Know that you’re not responsible for your partner’s escalations. You’re only responsible for what you say and do.

8. Ban the bombs.

do-not-enterWe all know the hot-button words that we ought to avoid, the words that always add fuel to an already simmering fire. Saying, you’re being stubborn or you’re not listening are a bad idea at my house. Many people find that being told to calm down makes them see red. Every couple has their own set of off limits phrases that, if they’re smart, they’ll aim to avoid.

9. Lighten up.

Sometimes the best move is to do something funny or surprising to help you unhook. Why not wave a white dish towel or speak in a foreign accent? One client said she refused to keep fighting with words and switched to funny faces and hand gestures, which made the two of them laugh. One of my husband’s most disarming moves is to take my hands and say, Let’s dance.

10. Accept imperfection.

Don’t bother aiming for sainthood or marital bliss. No matter how steady you become, you and your partner will still have fights. Remember, the goal isn’t to have a conflict-free marriage but to stop your fights a little bit sooner, be a little less reactive, and more willing to own your part in the mess.

Now, over to you. What have you found to cool off your fights?


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8 thoughts on “The Hot Headed Couple’s Guide to Keeping Your Cool in a Fight

  1. A brilliant and clear post. Gee, it’s easy to agree with everything, but as I tell myself and the couple’s I work with, it takes lots of practice.
    It’s so true how hard it is to restrain ourselves when we’re about to ‘lose it’! Yes, Humour is a great way and also noticing our own signals when we begin to escalate and take time out and remove ourselves until we have cooled down.
    If I can ask, what is your new book about?


    • Yes, this stuff takes practice. That’s why I always add a reminder that we learn in small steps and never attain perfection.

      My book is about marriage – how even the most troubled marriages can be turned around when people stop trying to change their marriage by changing their partner. Too often people give up when their spouse won’t change or engage in the change process. People underestimate how powerful (and empowering) unilateral change can be.

      A friend of mine described it as part memoir, part self- help and part stand up comedy routine. 🙂

      Thanks, as always for your comment!


  2. Seems to me there should be one more step at the very end–once everyone’s cooled off, maybe a little acknowledgement of the flare-up and a reasoned discussion about how to handle the situation in the future? Otherwise, over time, the zipped-lipped party may end up feeling resentful and losing some respect for the other. Just a thought.


    • Yes, absolutely. I was just describing the cooling off process and not the repair/reconciliation that follows. I agree, and it like how you phrase it, a reasoned discussion about how to do better going forward is crucial.

      I’ve been thinking about writing a post just on the subject of repair. Not easy for some coupes.

      Thanks so much for commenting.


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