De-escalation Strategies for Couples Fighting
Updated: Jan 26
Do you know the difference between conflict and fighting in a relationship? Many people think of fighting as yelling, screaming, and hitting. But, did you know that couples fighting comes in many forms, such as giving your partner the silent treatment?
Are you searching for ways to prevent fighting in your relationship? Read on for step-by-step instructions of how to implement de-escalation strategies that will prevent fighting in your relationship.
Couples often mistake conflict for fighting. Conflict is inevitable in relationships while fighting is optional. Conflict naturally occurs in relationships because each person has their own set of thoughts, beliefs, desires, and rituals that will not always be consistent with those of their partner. Disagreements are bound to happen and that is a natural part of the relational dance.
Fighting, however, are behaviors that cause emotional, physical, and psychological harm to the relationship. These behaviors can be directly aggressive or passive aggressive such as screaming and hitting or the cold shoulder (ignoring) and sarcasm. Withholding sex, refusing to answer your partner’s phone calls, and talking badly about your partner to others are also indicators of fighting. When a relationship is experiencing fighting, whether aggressive or passive aggressive fighting, de-escalation strategies are necessary and essential. Here are some helpful de-escalation strategies to reduce fighting.
***The steps below are for relationships with occasional episodes of fighting, in which both partners are willing to engage in de-escalation. If you are afraid of your partner and feel threatened by him or her, chances are you are in an abusive relationship. If you are in an abusive relationship or think you might be, please click on the following links, which provide information about abuse and domestic violence in relationships:
Step 1: Check-In With Your Body
Your body will provide you with cues that will alert you of the need to stop the current interaction with your partner in order to de-escalate the situation. When the below cues are present, you are likely in a fight, flight, or freeze response activated by your limbic system. Review the list below and identify which body cues you recognize in your own body when fighting.
Is your heart racing?
Are you breathing shallowly or holding your breath?
Is your voice loud, pressured, or yelling?
Are you screaming in your head but no words are coming out of your mouth?
Is your mind racing?
Are your fists tightened?
Are you clenching your teeth?
Do you feel hot and/or sweaty?
Do you feel frozen in place?
Do you want to run out of the room?
Do you feel like hitting/throwing something?
Step 2: Self-Soothing Skills
When your stress response is activated (as indicated by the body cues listed above), it is important to practice self-regulation skills to sooth the body and clear the mind.
Find a quiet, non-threatening space that is removed from your partner.
Sit on the floor or in a chair with your back straight and your feet on the ground.
Practice intentional, deep breathing. Try the Square Breathing Technique. As you trace a square in the air with your finger, practice the following breathing pattern: INHALE for 4 counts (1...2...3...4), HOLD your breath for 4 counts (1...2...3...4), EXHALE for 4 counts (1...2...3...4), HOLD your breath for 4 counts (1...2...3...4), and REPEAT. You can also do the 4:2:6 Breath. INHALE for 4 counts (1...2...3...4), HOLD for 2 counts (1...2), and EXHALE for 6 counts (1...2...3...4...5...6), and REPEAT.
Continue to do the Square Breathing Technique or the 4:2:6 Breath until you notice a change in your body cues: heart slows, breath slows & deepens, clenching in body reduces, mind begins to clear, and body temperature regulates.
Step 3: Building Awareness
When you notice a calming of your body, get your journal and write down the thoughts and feelings that are present. If journaling reactivates your stress response, simply return to the breathing exercise. Allow the journaling to be a safe discharge of the thoughts and emotions that are traveling in your mind and body. The journaling is not to be shared with your partner. It is just for you, a safe release of what is within.
After journaling, complete this sentence:
When I see __________ (direct observed behaviors), I feel __________ (feeling words). The story I tell myself _________ (personal worry or fear).
Example: When I see your clothes on the floor and your dishes on the table, I feel angry, sad, and disrespected. The story I tell myself is that you don’t care about me, you don’t care about the work I put in everyday, and I have to be responsible for everything.
Example: When I see you following me around the house to see what I’m doing and begin delegating tasks to me, I feel angry and belittled. The story I tell myself is that you think I never do enough, and I’m always falling short in your eyes.
Then ask yourself, “Where did I learn this story?”
Is this something I heard growing up?
Did my parent or caregiver feel this way in their relationship?
Have I felt this way in other relationships?
Is this story part of my stress response? Do I use this story consciously or unconsciously as permission to shut down or escalate in my relationship?
Becoming aware of the “story I tell myself” is an important part of the process. The “story” drives how we think about ourselves in any given situation and the emotions and reactions that might follow.
Consider if circumstances are occurring right now that might be contributing to your relational dynamics, and explore these questions:
Have any recent stressors or changes occurred, such as a new job, having a baby, relocation, death in the family, miscarriage, retirement, financial stressors, illness, etc.?
Given these circumstances, is my partner doing the best he/she can?
Can I empathize with OUR situation (not just my situation)?
Given this situation, what can I do and what do I need?
Step 4: Communication
Once you have gained some insight about your current relational dynamics and you have soothed your body, you are ready to communicate with your partner. I recommend the following communication steps:
LOCATION: Choose a neutral place to have the conversation. For example, if arguments tend to occur in the kitchen or the bedroom, do not choose this place for your talk. I find that sitting outside or going for a walk is a helpful environment for conversations. It also tends to decrease escalation. I recommend NOT having these conversations while driving. Driving has too many distractions and if escalation occurs, people can feel trapped in a moving car.
ACTIVE LISTENING: It needs to be agreed that each person will have the opportunity to share without interruption. The listener is to repeat back what is heard using their partner’s own words. In order for the listener to be successful in repeating what is heard, the communicator needs to pause periodically while sharing for the listener to reflect back what is being communicated. It is important to put all electronic devices away to engage in active listening and communicating.
DIALOGUE: Communicate the following completed sentences:
Example: When I see your clothes on the floor and your dishes on the table, I feel angry, sad, and disrespected. The story I tell myself is that you don’t care about me, you don’t care about the work I put in everyday, and I have to be responsible for everything. I discovered that this story stems from my family of origin. My mother felt unappreciated and expressed to me during my childhood feeling responsible for everyone and everything. It is understandable that we are having conflict due to starting a new job and having financial concerns. What I realize I need is some down time to rest…I’m working too hard and what I can do about that is let the dishes sit in the sink and sit down and do something I enjoy.
Example: When I see you following me around the house to see what I’m doing and begin delegating tasks to me, I feel angry and belittled. The story I tell myself is that you think I never do enough, and I’m always falling short in your eyes. I discovered that this story stems from not having a healthy model from my family of how to address conflict. I learned to shut down and distract during times of high stress growing up and that meant that some things didn’t get done. It is understandable that we are having conflict due to change in job and financial stress. It makes us all on edge. What I realize I need is time to relax before I have to do more work at home and what I can do about that is ask for 15 minutes before or after dinner to rest before jumping into household chores.
Pause after sharing these sentences. The listener will repeat back what is heard and what he/she/they understands about what was said.
COMMITMENTS AND GRATITUDE: After sharing and practicing active listening, verbalize commitment to taking action to meet your personal and relational needs (this is commitment to the statement “what I can do about that is_____.”). Then thank your partner for doing the personal inner work to become clear about his/her/their needs and how these needs can be met. Gratitude for the steps each person takes to participate in healthy de-escalation and conflict resolution is an important part of restoring connection and intimacy in the relationship. Gratitude evokes positive emotions that soothe distress and give us a more expansive view of our lives. Gratitude reminds us that we are all connected, and it opens our heart for new, healing connections.
I hope you found these De-escalation Strategies for Couples helpful. If you are interested in continuing to improve your connection, intimacy, and communication with your partner, consider participating in Couples Therapy or Couples Workshops. Sarah provides EFT Couples Therapy at Center For Conscious Connection and Virtual Couples Workshops at Hold Me Tight Series.