Updated: May 22
When you are in the midst of conflict with your partner, you might feel like you are facing down an enemy. The emotional arousal that happens during an argument fuels a different relational energy than your other, less charged conversations. During a fight, your feelings are amplified and your thoughts are incoherent. For couples who fight often or intensely, there is sometimes a sense of repetition or even inevitability. You know the detailed script for this argument because you have rehearsed it many times before. You sense the next line and prepare your response in anticipation. You know that when your partner rolls their eyes, you throw your hands in the air. Your fight is practically automated, like a self-driving car. I call this type of fighting "the tumbleweed" and work with my couples therapy clients to identify when they are stuck in a tumbleweed.
For couples who keep getting stuck in autopilot conflict, I have one simple but surprisingly powerful tool.
Ask your partner, what could we each do right now to make this fight worse?
You read that right - worse. Ask your partner how the two of you could make things worse, not better. Then volunteer ways you personally could explode the fight. The key here is that each person shares their own potential specific grenades rather than telling their partner how they could behave hurtfully. So, you might say “I could storm out of the room and slam the door, that would make things way worse” rather than telling them “you could call me an idiot like you did last time we fought about money.” Try to stay in the realm of actions you have or might actually take, rather than describing extremes that you both know would never happen. Although this might sound like a dangerous strategy (why would you want to talk about how the fight could be even worse?), verbalizing how you could escalate is not the same as actually escalating. Your partner may even find it validating, since in order to name potentially explosive actions, you show awareness of the impact of your behavior.
Let’s break down why asking this question is such an unexpectedly useful strategy.
1. Break free of the script.
“How can we make things worse?” is probably not a line in your typical fight dialogue. By going off-book, you interrupt the conflict script. Suddenly, the normal next move doesn’t make any sense. When you are trapped on a rapidly accelerating train toward a huge fight, this question forcibly shoves you off the track.
2. Gain some distance.
In addition to disrupting the rapid escalation of your conflict, the “how can we make things worse” question also pulls you both away from the interaction and prompts you to examine the dynamic from afar. If you genuinely ask yourselves what you could each do to make it worse, you’ll be forced to look at the conflict from a slightly different angle. During the conflict, it can feel like you and your partner are literally on the battlefield, fighting for your lives. This question disrupts that sense of danger and asks you to climb up an adjacent hill and look down at the battle from a distance together. The conflict is still below, but you now have some perspective.
3. Identify what not to do.
After asking and answering the question “what could we do to make things worse,” you may still feel unsure what to do next. But, you will have clarified what you definitely should not do next. You’ll get the best effect if you take the question seriously and actually make a list together of what could make your sticky situation worse. Although you might be tempted to focus on next steps, it’s best not to rush to solutions. Jumping to problem solving often puts one person on the defensive because they feel they are being told what to do or how to act. What’s more, the flood of emotions often blocks constructive ideas.
So, now that you’ve now identified what not to do, what should you actually do to resolve the fight?
The pattern is the problem
Here’s the sneakily cool thing about this magic question. By asking and answering it together, you are actually taking steps to resolve the conflict. Although it may seem like talking about how you could make things worse is not productive, you are actually practicing one of the most crucial skills I teach couples - identifying that the pattern is the problem, not each other. When you climb off the battlefield and examine the fight together from a distance, you have successfully located the problem down there, below and separate from you both.
Gaining perspective on your conflict dynamic - without inciting further conflict - takes time and practice. Asking this question is a step to gain actual experience deescalating the intensity of your interaction and collaboratively exploring the combat zone without reentering it.
For personalized strategies that fit your unique relationship, reach out today to learn more about my approach or schedule an appointment.