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Keeping Your Conversations from Becoming Quarrels.

This is intended as a general guide for helping you find ways to break the cycle of unhelpful arguments that many couples find themselves experiencing when they are in a rut. In some cases, couples share stories of how these quarrels lead to emotional escalations that result in explosive arguments. In others, couples recount stories of resentment, distance, frustrations, contempt, or feelings of mistrust.

No matter what it looks like or sounds like, even in very intense and frightening situations often is at least partially caused by conversations that should not have continued after escalation. Anxieties turn to frustrations, which increase as helplessness or frustration creeps in. The only thing required here is a repeated unpleasant experience. It is often not personal, but if feels that way. I see this pattern as similar to what happens when we drive on a muddy road with deep ruts. Couples often slip into habitual ruts when they get close to the old feelings and simply "slip in". This is both triggering and amplifies feelings of being trapped and misunderstood. As they proceed in old emotional habits and unloving or frustrated responses, the tendency toward "fight" or "flight" sympathetic nervous system activation is increased. This is a no-win proposition that presents a common, but helplessness-inducing pattern when couples really are seeking to be understood and resolve everyday problems. Most couples want to be friends, but this gets complicated when they get stuck and cannot escape the ruts together.

While I offer a simple explanation here, I know that the feelings are never simple. These patterns can trigger strong emotional responses and even contribute to traumatic memories themselves. While emotional healing is often necessary, my experience is that helping couples communicate more effectively is an essential first step toward the work ahead.

My first recommendation is that couples stop this pattern when they find themselves in it, so they can restore healthy communication patterns. This may take time, but it is only through this that relationship life can be peaceful. After that, couples can access the real gifts afforded in a loving, reciprocal relationship. Loving relationships can be healing, even if they have been difficult.

Boundaries are important

I recommend that each person in a couple work very hard at identifying their own tendencies toward unhelpful, provocative, or inflammatory behavior. There is no place in any conversation for criticism, defensiveness, blame, name-calling, hostility, or intentional ignoring or "stonewalling" behaviors. At the same time, if your partner struggles with these responses, it is best to model good behavior, ask them to honor boundaries related to these behaviors or tones, and discontinue if there isn't reasonable cooperation in this effort. Expert help is always available.

The "How To..." of Frustration

The following is an adaptation from John Gottman's "repair checklist" that is essentially a list of statements to help express feelings or needs in direct but loving ways. It is essential that couples work together on this, although the idea is that one of you may be more agitated than the other. If you work together toward the same goal of promoting peaceful, loving exchanges, you can make progress and establish a more harmonious way of understanding needs and wants.

Remember the old adage: "If it isn't helpful, polite, true, and necessary" (all of the above), it should not come out of your mouth. If your partner has trouble with this, consider having a conversation about rules of engagement at a time when things are calm, in the spirit of improving your relationship.

“I Feel” statements: To be used when you need to express your feelings or when feelings are becoming intense. Most often, expressing negative feelings is at least a risky proposition in conversations. It is best if these statements are employed as an alternative to defensive responses or if you begin to feel attacked, criticized or misunderstood. These are effective alternatives for arguing as if your partner is wrong, accusing your partner of a wrongdoing, or pointing out a fault. The bottom line is that if you are not ready to share responsibility and to maintain a loving side of the conversation, it is still better to wait to have the conversation. These tactics are to help slow the pace and decrease the intensity of negative emotion. Increase closeness and unity through these statements by helping your partner see your interest in understanding them, first.

I’m getting scared. • Please say that more gently. • Did I do something wrong? • That hurt my feelings. • That felt like an insult. • I’m feeling sad. • I feel blamed. Can you rephrase that? • I’m feeling unappreciated. • I feel defensive. Dan you rephrase that? • I feel like you are lecturing me. • I don’t feel like you understand. • Sounds like it’s all my fault. • I feel criticized. Can you rephrase that? • I’m getting worried. • Please don’t withdraw.


“Sorry” statements: “Oh it seems to me that sorry seems to be the hardest word.”(Bernie Taupin lyrics, performed by Elton John in his 1976 album Blue Moves). This statement is quite true, especially if we have been stuck in a pattern of argument and feel misunderstood for one reason or another. Apologies are not intended to be general and universal, so they should relate to specific behaviors or contributions to problematic situations. Failures to apologize can result in patterns of hurt and do not allow for healing, where trust can be rebuilt. Trust is only properly built or rebuilt on the foundation of love, so we our responses are not consistent with the standard expressed in St. Paul's writings about love, we fail to provide our partners the right path toward healthy trust. No matter your faith background, consider the wisdom:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

(1 Corinthians 13: 4-13 NIV)

We must be mature enough to model love in order to hope that it can be returned to us. If you find yourself off of this path, don't be ashamed. Give yourself a break and share your regret with your partner with a statement below...

My reactions were too extreme. Sorry. • I really blew that one. • Let me try again. • I want to be gentler to you right now and I don’t know how. • Tell me what you hear me saying. • I can see my part in all this. • How can I make things better? • Let’s try that one over again. • What you are saying is. . . • Let me start again in a softer way. • I’m sorry. Please forgive me.



“Stop Action” statements: If you are enroute for a collision, you need to maneuver carefully. If you feel attacked, your partner will begin to look and feel like an adversary. If your partner feels like they are being criticized or attacked, they will feel similarly. This is unhelpful and typically contributes to escalations or other breakdowns in communication. One of the most helpful controls in a boat headed for a rocky shore is the reverse lever. As such, I suggest that when we are heading down an unhelpful path in conversation that we simply reverse course. Stop trying to be understood and work on restoring trust. Admitting you are not on the right path is a huge win. It is humble. It is kind. Consider using the following language if you might have overstepped or misspoken:

I might be wrong here. • Please, let’s stop for a while. • Let’s take a break. • Give me a moment. I’ll be back. • I’m feeling flooded. • Please stop. • Let’s agree to disagree here. • Let’s start all over again. • Hang in there. Don’t withdraw. • I want to change the topic. • We’re getting off track.


“Getting to Yes” statements: These statements are intended to highlight agreement clearly, without fully abdicating any of your own thoughts or feelings. If you can begin to highlight unity or togetherness, it will help as a building block toward cooperative and loving communication. In most cases your partner will feel more appreciated and understood and you will be able to see the positive result.

You’re starting to convince me. • I agree with part of what you’re saying. • Let’s compromise here. • Let’s find our common ground. • I never thought of things that way. • This problem is not very serious. • I think your point of view makes sense. • Let’s agree to include both our views in a solution.


“I Appreciate” statements: Remember that you and your partner are friends or at least you want to be. If nothing else, you could be frustrated because you want something better, so it will be in your best interest to encourage healthy habits. Habit formation requires that you recognize and reward positive and appropriate behaviors as often as possible. Support your partner in their feelings, even if you don't feel like it.

I know this isn’t your fault. • My part of this problem is . . . • I see your point. • Thank you for . . . • That’s a good point. • We’re both saying . . . • I understand. • I love you. • I am thankful for . . . • One thing I admire about you is . . . • I see what you mean. • This is not your problem, it’s OUR problem.


“I Need you to Calm Down” statements: If you recognize panic, anger, or another unhelpful intensity in your partner (intensity is often not helpful), you may be able to use these statements to improve your partner’s awareness of this. If use of these statements does not work quickly, it is likely that you simply need to take a break from the conversation to re-regulate. Remember, the objective is for both partners to be at their best to hold loving conversational space for each other.

Can you make things safer for me? • I need things to be calmer right now. • I need your support right now. • Just listen to me right now and try to understand. • Tell me you love me. • Can I have a kiss? • Can I take that back? • Please be gentler with me. • Please help me calm down. • Please be quiet and listen to me. • This is important to me. Please listen to me. • I need to finish what I was saying. • I am starting to feel flooded. • Can we take a break? • Can we talk about something else for a while?

Good luck and be patient. Forming new habits after ruts have been formed can be very difficult. Think not of when things go wrong but compare your relationship and conversations to what they were yesterday or last week. You can improve things with the proper guidance, attitude toward growth, mutual effort, and recognize that you are looking to reduce the average frequency, intensity, and duration of unhelpful patterns each day! If you give grace to yourselves, you can continue to trend toward the positive.


About the author: Brock Caffee has practiced Marriage and Family Therapy for 20 years. He is in private practice is in Lawrence, KS. He has experience as a lecturer, clinical supervisor and manager. Life experiences include opportunities for insight into the world of parenting, divorce, step-parenting, and addiction recovery.


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