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Flashpoints in Relationship Exchanges

Flashpoints turn discussions into recurring, unresolvable arguments.

Key points

  • Flashpoints ramp up the emotional intensity of exchanges between relationship partners.
  • They obscure everything said before them and determine what comes after them.
  • They’re hidden catalysts of the recurring arguments that turn partners into opponents.
  • To escape the treadmill of recurring arguments, partners must rehearse more benign responses to flashpoints.

By the time couples come to me, they’re desperate to avoid hurtful exchanges and recurring arguments. (I specialize in chronic resentment, anger, and emotional abuse.) Typically, they’ve already seen a number of therapists and have tried many techniques of communication and active listening, which haven’t worked for them outside the therapist’s office. Invariably, they’ve developed habits of reacting to flashpoints that derail their exchanges.

A flashpoint is something said or done that ramps up the emotional intensity of exchanges between relationship partners. It’s usually accompanied by a physical marker, such as body tension, a pit in your stomach, accelerated pulse rate, or taut facial expression. After a flashpoint, partners can hear nothing positive, and rarely can they say anything helpful. Typical flashpoints are overt or implied negative characterizations or anything judgmental, insulting, devaluing, accusing, dismissing, blaming, or diagnosing.

Flashpoints distort memory, obscuring what occurred before them, which is why partners can seldom recall what started the argument. After a flashpoint, I’ll remember the worst thing my partner said, but not what I said immediately before it.

Catch and Rehearse

It’s hard to catch flashpoints when they occur. They’re so automatic, they bypass the self-aware and regulatory parts of the brain. Try to pay attention to your body. If you’re feeling tense, stop blaming and try to see your partner's perspective and then ask your partner to see yours. If your pulse rate goes over 80, take a timeout for ten-to-twenty minutes.

If you didn’t catch it in the moment, wait until you’re both calmer to identify the flashpoint, without blaming it on each other. Rehearse what you’ll both do when it recurs, as it almost certainly will.

Flashpoint: “You have disregarded my health and my requests.”

Next time: “We’ll try to understand each other without judgment.”

Flashpoint: “As usual, I address a topic and you dismiss and disagree.”

Next time: “When we disagree, let’s listen to each other’s perspective and try to understand, without judging. If we don’t understand, we’ll respectfully ask for and add more information.”

People are often surprised at setting off a flashpoint when all they tried to do was “express my feelings.” Don't confuse judgments, stated or implied, with expressing feelings. For example:

“I feel judged, unheard, disregarded, ignored.”

These are not feelings, they’re judgments, if not accusations, about a partner’s behavior. They’re bound to evoke defensiveness and counteraccusations. Here is an example of expressing feelings:

“I feel bad, sad, isolated, afraid, frustrated. I’m guessing that you’re having something like these same feelings. Is that right?””

Show interest in each other’s perspectives, why you think and feel the way you do. Partners are often surprised that they don’t significantly disagree about the topic once they recognize flashpoints and cooperate to change them (rather than blaming them on each other). Research by John Gottman and others suggests that couples have several important issues about which they never agree. When they’re respectful, compassionate, and kind, it’s much easier to tolerate those disagreements.

Negative Tacit Judgments

Flashpoints are bound to occur when partners hold negative judgments about each other, even when they don’t express them. Tacit negative judgments manifest in body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. They increase reactivity and obstruct negotiation about behavior choices.

Left on autopilot, negative judgments become self-fulfilling prophecy. Partners tend to respond to each other’s negative judgments in ways that confirm them. For example, judging that your partner is a nag will inevitably cause your partner to feel unheard and talk more.

Negative judgments are almost always reciprocal. If you have negative judgments about your partner, your partner has negative judgments about you. If you want to change your partner’s negative judgments about you, you must change your negative judgments about your partner.

Negative judgments are not only bad for the entire family, they’re also bad for your health and will manifest in both minor and serious symptoms.


Every negative judgment has plausible alternatives. In a love relationship, you want to choose the most compassionate plausible interpretation. For example:

Negative Judgment: “My partner is not compassionate, kind, or appreciative.”

Compassionate interpretation: “My partner does not receive compassion, kindness, and appreciation from me.”

In addition to softening your own negative judgments with more compassionate interpretations, try to ameliorate your partner’s negative judgments. For example, suppose your partner’s negative judgment is that you're selfish.

Confirmation: I’m irritated that my partner unfairly judges me to be selfish. She’s got some nerve thinking that; she does nothing for me.

Amelioration: “I’m sorry I didn't show you that I care about your feelings. I do care, I just have some bad habits I need to work on. I want you to feel that I care, even when we disagree.”

A general rule about changing your partner’s negative judgment is this: If you contradict an accusation in a love relationship, you prove that it’s true, but if you agree with it, you prove it false. In the example above, the partner responds selfishly to his partner’s judgment that he’s selfish. In the amelioration, he agrees with the accusation but responds compassionately, which shows that he’s trying to be considerate.

Ameliorate, Don’t Exacerbate

After a flashpoint, we always have a choice to ameliorate, that is, apologize. On autopilot, we tend to make things worse by thinking of all possible reasons to justify being upset. Anger and distress are gluttons. Justifying feeds them, ameliorating starves them.

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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