It’s a common experience to feel as if there are hidden tripwires set for you to stumble over at your most unsuspecting moment. Often the intensity of your partner’s reaction doesn’t appear to match up with the current situation. This is what makes these sudden flare-ups so confusing. I know many times people look back at an argument and say, “I don’t even know what started it,” or “Why did she react so irrationally to that trivial thing?” or “What just happened? All I did was ask a simple question, and he went nuts!”
The other person probably does have a perfectly logical explanation for their angry eruption (don’t we all!), but that explanation oftentimes obscures the real origins: hurt or pain that was quickly buried in one defensive reaction after another.
Identifying those feelings is the key to arguing less. You can’t resolve something when you don’t know what the problem really is.
If the partner in first scenario had tapped into the hurt she was feeling, she would’ve been able to say, “Babe, when you took that call, I felt brushed aside. I wanted this evening to be just the two of us.” It then would’ve been easy for her partner to respond by saying, “I understand. Let’s start over—cheers to just the two of us!”
Couples don’t want to argue, but solutions like “I’ll try not to get so angry” or “I’ll just accept things the way they are” go by the wayside in a flash. Humans are wired to connect, which is why these solutions are paper-thin—we often are not actually OK with this new and unwanted status quo. (In turn, when true feelings are buried for the sake of avoiding arguments, people often go on to complain, spend more time with friends, or even have an affair—which, again, are not solutions to the distress in the relationship.)
When we feel misunderstood or criticized, our nervous system signals danger, and we fight, flee, or freeze in response. Our ability to follow any rules of fairness is minimal, as is our ability to interact with each other in any fruitful way.
So to combat this snap reaction, the very first thing to do is stop arguing.
Agree on a “timeout” signal. It’s really hard to stop, of course—won’t just one more sentence prove your point?—but it’s essential.