Avoiding Escalation

Learning to identify behaviors that cause fights to escalate.

Posted Apr 10, 2019

Many comedies make fun of fights that start with something trivial – e.g. a cap left off the toothpaste tube – but turn into a brawl that threatens the relationship itself. Fights, particularly between couples, can start over the stupidest/silliest of things.

Sadly these little squabbles can grow out of control — escalate — to the point that both people feel hurt, angry and rejected. What turns them into a serious fight?  

Fights don’t get out of control all by themselves. They escalate because of the behaviors in which we, and our partners, engage.

Each person is justifying his/her own behavior as just holding one’s own in response to what the other person said or did. He justifies his behavior based on what she did. She justifies her behavior based on what he did. That really means that no one is being responsible for their own behavior. Each is justifying his/her behavior based on what the other person did. No one is in charge.

The Predictable Pattern of Escalation

There is even a predictable pattern to escalation. Escalation is triggered when someone feels poked, threatened, or put down. Again, this may be something very small when you look back at it.

Almost immediately people go to the first escalating behavior: blaming and accusing. One thing that starts escalation is a lot of “you messages” (see post #2) --  “you did this …”, “you did that….”

Blaming and accusing often leads to the second stage of escalation, which is name-calling. In addition to calling her lazy for leaving the cap off the toothpaste, Dennis may say that Theresa is irresponsible.” Theresa may call Dennis a “bastard,” a “jerk, and a “pompous ass.”

What happens next is that both parties expand the issues about which you are fighting:

Here’s what it means to expand the issue:

  • 1st Issue: “You left the cap off the toothpaste.”
  • 2nd Issue: “You’re always so messy.”
  • 3rd Issue: “You just don’t take responsibility for anything, except maybe for your stupid truck."
  • 4th Issue: “Your mother feels the same way about you."
  • 5th Issue: “I don’t know why I ever married someone so irresponsible."

You can see that the issue is changing as the argument goes along. It starts out with the toothpaste cap, moves to general messiness, then moves to irresponsibility. Then it even begins to call the relationship into question

The issues not only proliferate — you get more and more of them — but they also expand. They get bigger and bigger. They move all the way from the toothpaste cap to your total irresponsibility in life, even your suitability as a partner.

In an effort to strengthen their position, both people may start to claim allies, bolstering their position by claiming the support of others. Theresa says: “Your mother feels that way too.” Sometimes both people actively enlist the people around them to “be on their side.” This can even lead to family feuds, sometimes going on for extended periods of time. At its worst, parents try to use their kids to strengthen their side, putting the kids in the position of having to choose between parents.

The next stage is distortion of communication. People begin to communicate through exaggeration, broad sweeping generalizations, character attacks, and prolonged and hostile periods of silence. You can tell you’ve reached this stage when you, or your partner, is saying “you always …”, or “you never …” Sometimes people even cut off direct communication, communicating through other people: “Johnny, tell your father than he has to cut the lawn.”

As the escalation occurs, both people start to take positions that are rigid or extreme. You might not have cared that much to start with, but now you find yourself becoming very rigid: “I’ll never do that…” People get stuck in fixed positions.

At the top of the escalation spiral, the goal simply becomes to hurt each other verbally or sometimes even physically. The goal becomes to “get” the other person. If this goes on for long, the relationship may be destroyed.

Protect your relationship even when in conflict

In any relationship, there are three parties: ME, YOU and WE. What happens when we escalate is we lose track of the WE, sometimes we even destroy the WE.

This leads to a kind of First Commandment for handling conflicts in a relationship: Even while you are fighting remember that there is a “WE” that may be fragile but incredibly valuable, and avoid behaviors that threaten “WE.”

We threaten WE because four things happen during escalation:

  • First, we start seeing the other person as an adversary, or the enemy.
  • We lose touch of the fact that we love the other person. We may have been very loving just an hour ago. But right now we hate their guts. And you better believe the kids pick up in the fact that Mom and Dad aren’t feeling very loving towards each other — and that’s very threatening. During escalation, both of us become less willing to listen
  • We become less willing to expose our deeper feelings, and sometimes suspend communication altogether.

Rules of Engagement

The trick is to remember to avoid escalating behavior. There are some “rules of engagement” that will help you remember this. Obviously, it would be better if both people played by these rules. So, we encourage you to discuss these rules with your partner and see if you can reach an agreement on at least some of them.

But if you can’t, follow these rules yourself. Take responsibility for your own behavior, regardless of what your partner does. You want to change the usual outcome, so you have to start by changing your behavior.

Rule #1: Avoid blaming and accusing. Send feelings using “I messages” (see post 3)

Rule #2: Don’t engage in name-calling or labeling. Describe. behavior, and tell how it makes you feel, without judging or evaluating it.

Rule #3: Don’t expand the issue. Don’t pile on with additional issues, and, in particular, don’t make the issue bigger, more universal.

Rule #4: Don’t use other people or authorities as ammunition. Trying to get more power by claiming the support of others will just result in the other person trying to top that.

Rule #5: Avoid sweeping generalizations like “you always” or “you never.” This kind of generalization is always untrue and will always stimulate powerful counter-attacks.

Rule #6: Do whatever you can to break the patterns of resistance. Communicate your feelings, but don’t try to prove you are right. Acknowledge things you’ve done that were thoughtless or bad. Support ideas suggested by the other person.

Rule #7: If you’re dealing with a practical problem that needs to be solved, don’t mix the conflict phase with the problem-solving phase. Get resolved on the dispute somehow, then set a later date to wrestle with problem-solving. Otherwise, the bad feelings from the dispute will poison the problem-solving. Then follow the problem-solving process that will be described in the next post.

The time after a bad fight – a few hours or a few days – is a good time to set your own rules of engagement. You’re still hurting enough that you know you don’t want to go there again, but close enough to the fight to admit that if you don’t change some behaviors, you’ll be right back in it the next time you have a fight. Change while you remember what it was like to climb the ladder of escalation.