Almost every couples therapist will tell you that at some point, escalated conflict is pointless.
There's nothing useful that comes from screaming at each other while forgetting what you were fighting about to begin with. We all know this. You don't need specialized training to understand that conflict can get out of control. All you need is a few years of a marriage to tell you that. Despite that knowledge, it's still harder than it should be to push the eject button on conflict before it gets nasty.
There's a good reason for this.
We all tend to work one way or another. Either we're wired to shut down or escalate when conflict gets rough. Some of us could argue forever. Some of us, though, have a very low tolerance for conflict.
You've heard of the phrase "conflict-avoidant," I'm sure. But did you know that "conflict-avoidant" has an evil twin brother named "conflict-dominant"? We don't talk too much about this twin, but he's important. Usually, these two come in pairs in distressed relationships. I don't know why, but most of the time, a conflict-dominant person will find a conflict-avoidant one. This pairing actually works quite well most of the time. The two usually hold each other accountable for getting through difficult conversations, but not at the risk of good communication.
When couple conflict goes too far.
But when things aren't working, a conflict-dominant person always feels like her partner is abandoning her. And a conflict-avoidant person will feel like his partner can't let anything go and will fight at any cost.
The reality is that this is just two different ways of managing conflict that works together to create a destructive cycle. The more a conflict-dominant person pushes, the more the avoidant partner will shut down. The more that person shuts down, the more the dominant partner pursues because she's more scared that he'll bail on her or that he won't ever be willing to have the conversation.
So this graphic is intended to help both of these people get what they need. On the one hand, a conflict avoidant person needs space when she gets overwhelmed. She just does. There's no changing this. It's her chemistry. However, how she asks for space is what makes the difference. Because when an avoidant person exits an argument roughly, the dominant partner will always interpret this behavior as a lack of caring and interest.
Despite that avoidant partners are usually just trying to manage feeling overwhelmed and anxious, it looks a lot like abandonment to those of us who don't understand why you won't just talk.
I'm not shouting!
Avoidant partners have to do most of the work in the beginning, and this is only because dominant partners usually don't need to stop an argument. But you could make a case that dominant partners have the hardest job, because they just have to live with the fact that avoidant partners get to set their own boundaries.
So avoidant partners start by telling their partners that they need to stop because they're overwhelmed. It's important that avoidant partners do not try and blame the dominant partner, saying this like, "You're out of control." It's also important that avoidant partners don't try to take authority on the couple's process. Don't say things like, "We need to stop because this is going nowhere." Instead, own whatever feeling you're experiencing. If you need help, you're probably feeling overwhelmed. Speak only for yourself. Other strategies will only provoke defensiveness.
Next, the avoidant partner needs to give some kind of an affirmation. Something like, "I care about this issue," or whatever language seems right. This is important because you're reassuring your dominant partner that you're not bailing. You care. You're just overwhelmed and need to stop. Give a reasonable amount of time that you'll come back to pick up the discussion - or ask to sleep on it.
You taking the initiative to bring up the issue before your partner does is crucial. It's what relaxes them and makes it more likely that they'll create a safe environment for you.
Dominant partners, this is where your work begins. You have to let your avoidant partner go. She needs space, and you need to give it. One of the worst things you can do is pursue a partner who has reached her emotional/psychological limit. It feels like torture for them to continue. So let her go and give her an opportunity to come back.
She may surprise you.
I print this out for my clients and keep them at my office. I ask my clients to post them on their refrigerator. Or on their nightstand. I ask them to practice whenever they're not in conflict. It may seem ridiculous, but sleeping alone is worse.