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Angry With Your Spouse? 3 Ways to Diffuse an Argument Before It Even Starts

How to turn resentment and frustration into positive problem-solving

Published on: May 27, 2021

married couple sitting outside in a half-hug with contented expressions on their faces

During a recent event we did with ParentMap (watch the full video), we received a great question: "How do you keep mindfulness alive in the heat of the moment?" someone asked. “It seems much easier when things are calm, but it’s needed more when situations are stressful.“

This question reminded us of one of our favorite quotes from the Austrian psychologist Victor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."

In marriage, the stimulus is your partner's outrageous comment at the dinner table, their complete inability to load a dishwasher, or their Netflix-binge-watching habit when you're getting the kids ready for bed.

The response is what happens next. It’s saying, “How are you able to hold down a job when our 7-year-old does a better job loading the dishwasher?"  It's firing off a rhetorical missile designed to hit your partner right where it hurts.

The stimulus, in other words, triggers a habitual response, which in turn leads to that same old fight you keep having again and again.

The solution is to create “space" to shift to 80/80. It’s finding that fleeting moment of freedom between what your partner says and what you say back.

But how can you expand this space? Try these three tools.

Notice anger rising.

For most of us, anger rises as a momentary wave of thoughts and sensations. You feel a burning sensation in your stomach that ascends through your chest and into your head. You feel the muscles in your neck, jaw and face clenching.

Use this physiological experience as your cue to pay attention. Think of it as an inner alarm clock, only, in this case, you’re not waking up from actual sleep. You are waking up from the sleep of your ordinary habits. 

This initial moment of awareness may sound subtle, but it’s the source of freedom, because now you have a choice. You can follow the well-worn path of anger and irritation, or you can choose to approach this situation in a new, fresh way.

Take a pause.

Noticing these moments of irritation interrupts your ordinary habitual response. This second step expands the space between your partner’s latest annoying act and your response to it.

There are all sorts of ways to create a pause. Some people find it useful to take a 4x4 breath: inhaling for four counts, exhaling for four counts, four times. For other people, a single slow, smooth, conscious breath is all that's needed. For others, it can be useful to get grounded in the moment by bringing your attention to the sensations in your feet. For others, practicing gratitude or thinking of one thing to be thankful for can shift their mood. 

Figure out what works best for you and then make an intentional effort to create this pause.

Respond skillfully.

Once you notice and take a pause, how can you respond skillfully to your partner? There's no single answer here, no single line or phrase you can memorize. The best and most skillful response depends on you, your partner and the context.

In this sense, responding skillfully is a lot like jazz. It arises spontaneously, in the moment.

So, we can’t give you the script. But we can tell you where it comes from. The most skillful responses in tense moments rarely come from your habitual patterns. They don't rise up automatically from that place of irritation and anger. Instead, the most powerful ways of responding to your partner come from your heart. They're motivated by love and a genuine desire to find connection with your partner. So start there, with a reminder to yourself and them that you love each other.

In practice, this might look like cracking a joke to bring some levity to the moment. It could be giving your partner a huge hug. Or maybe fixing them their favorite bowl of chocolate ice cream with sprinkles on it.

Editor's note: This article was originally published on 80/80 Marriage

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