Break the Argument Cycle Once and For All

By K. Stone

January 15, 2008   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man

After a big fight with your spouse, co-worker, family member, or house-mate, you swear to yourself that you’re not going to let anger get the best of you again. But then what happens the next time? You bump into this person somewhere and immediately your physiology and your mindset to change. You can feel your mood begin to sour like lemon juice being poured into milk. Your face transforms to stone, your body tenses, and your mind braces for the expected aggravation. Where does this leave you? Primed for your next argument!

Why does this happen? The biggest factor is our expectations:

  • We expect this person to do things that will bother us.
  • We replay the last argument in our mind and expect a repeat.
  • We want and expect that the person should change the behaviors that get under our skin.

We know they won’t, so we envision the next fight without even realizing it. In fact we’re gunning for it and part of us, if we’re completely honest with ourselves, we would actually be a bit disappointed if we were wrong. So we cling onto any little shred that proves our expectations right, and then we launch into fight mode for which we have prepared so well. We set ourselves up for failure.

Breaking the Cycle
So, how can we break the argument cycle? It’s really quite simple. Change your expectations. Is it easy? No, but you can do it. How? Write down what the person does that bothers you. Why does it bother you? How can you re-frame these experiences so that they don’t set you off? Try to understand why the other person does the things that they do and figure out how you can melt your irritation. Let’s look at an example.

Let’s say that every evening when you come home from work, your spouse launches into a tirade of complaints, negative comments, and problems she needs solved. After years of this, you now have a very low set-point for starting an argument when this happens. You feel she should greet you with a smile, some positive energy, and save the problem requests for after dinner. You’ve worked hard all day, fought your way home through traffic, and the last thing you want to be greeted with is more problems. You get mad because you’ve asked her not to do this many times. She thinks you don’t care. The scenario keeps repeating. So how can you make the situation better without her changing?

Change your expectations. Expect that your spouse will not be changing. Put yourself in your spouse’s shoes. Why does she complain and discuss problems as soon as you get home? Maybe it’s because she is tired and frustrated and is looking for support. Stop expecting your wife to change this habit. Instead, find a way to understand it and change how you view it. Ask yourself how you could use this opportunity to love and support her. Once you change how you see the situation, you will be able to stop the automatic anger response. It’s a choice inside of you.

Obviously, you could also discuss together ways to change this pattern, and that might help too. But there will always be things about people that we don’t like and that most likely we can’t change.

  • Why does Joe always make projects bigger than they need to be?
  • Why does Karen always buy more things than she needs?
  • Why can’t Louis stop working so hard?
  • Why is Mary always late?

Instead of being irritated by these things, accept them. Try to focus your thoughts on all the good things about that person. Don’t try to change them. If they ask for help, go ahead and help, but if they don’t, just accept who they are. If there is a behavior that is unacceptable to you then you may need to move on from the relationship. But if it’s something that only irritates you, try to see if you can shift your focus and simply enjoy that person instead, like you did when you first knew them.

Other Helpful Tips

1. Become aware of your triggers. Here are some common ones that may be affecting you: exhaustion, pain, worry, too much caffeine, sugar, alcohol, hormonal changes, and stress. Do you experience any of these before an argument? What are the precursors that lead up to an argument for you?

2. Establish ways to handle those triggers ahead of time. Once you are in touch with what sets you off, you can establish a plan to head off those triggers before they cause you to lose emotional control. So, for instance, if you know that you are more likely to get into an argument when you arrive home from work exhausted, you might want to change something in your routine. Maybe you meditate in your office or your car before you go home. Maybe you ask your spouse for 20 minutes of quiet time alone before greeting each other. Or maybe you get more sleep. The key with whatever plan you design is to come up with a solution to quell your triggers before they can get the best of you.

3. Walk away if your emotions are in the red zone. You probably know the difference between being mildly irritated and being flaming mad. If your emotions are really hot, then walk away to release that energy in a way that won’t cause harm. Maybe you go for a walk. Maybe you call a confidant who is good at listening and helping you to return to a reasonable state of mind. Maybe you write things down so you can clearly understand what caused you to get angry in the first place. That’s when solutions for moving forward in a positive manner will become evident.

4. Discuss solutions later when your emotions have cooled. Keep in mind that the person may not be able or willing to change. The solution may need to be a change in you and how you perceive the situation.

Here are a couple reference articles that may also be helpful:

Do you have a success story about how you were able to break an argument cycle? How did you do it? We’d love to hear from you!

Written by K. Stone of Life Learning Today.

K. Stone

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