Most of us sometimes get caught up in unwanted escalating destructive communication cycles (fights) with people we care about.  If we understand both what causes these fights and what makes them escalate we might be able to prevent them.  One reasons fights start is as a result of one person trying to communicate to another that the other person is doing something hurtful.  We all need to be able to  communicate to others when they are doing something hurtful or harmful to us.  Unfortunately others often react to criticism as if it were an attack.   As a result they reject the criticism and they counterattack and a fight is born.   When we want to convey a critical message to another person they are more likely to be receptive to it if we convey it in an affectionate way.  I remember a woman who did this with a female friend of ours.  She would say "Cindy, I love you but you have to think more positive."  The art of persuasion is discussed further on another page of this web site.  No matter what we do the other person may perceive our criticism as an attack. 

     Fundamental to many fights is an overly paranoid reaction to criticism.  People often view criticism by others as an attack on themselves and often respond by counterattacking.  If criticized people often criticize back.  Lets say Jack criticizes Jane for telling other people at a party that he is unemployed.   Lets say he is trying to communicate to Jane not to do it again  Ideally Jane would apologize and say something like "I'm sorry if I made you feel uncomfortable, I won't do it again, I was hoping that if people knew you were unemployed they'd try and find you a job."  Often people in Jane's shoes react to criticism with a counterattack.  They may counterattack by criticizing back.  If they were in Jane's position they might say to Jack, "Jack if you would get on the ball and get a job I wouldn't have to tell people you were unemployed".  This counterattack pours fuel on the fire powering a vicious circle.  A typical vicious cycle leading to a fight is diagrammed below.


Person A defends himself by pointing out to Person B how he contributed to the problem.  Person A also counterattacks person B.

Person A feels hostility toward Person B images/acycle.gif (14544 bytes) Person B interprets Person A's comments as a personal attack
Person A interprets Person B's comments as a personal attack

Person A defends himself by pointing out to Person B how he causes problems.  Person A also counterattacks person B.

Person B feels hostility toward Person A


  I have found that most of the time when I get angry at someone it's because they express what I feel is an unfair belief that I am bad.   This has led to the following cycle.


Person A says hurtful things to  Person B and expresses the belief that Person B  is bad

Person A becomes angry at   Person B images/acycle.gif (14544 bytes) Person B feels unfairly accused by  Person A
Person A feels unfairly accused by  Person B

Person B says hurtful things to  Person A and expresses the belief that Person A  is bad

Person B becomes angry at Person A

   How do we avoid getting caught in the above vicious cycles?  To prevent cycles it makes sense to try and prevent each contributing step of the cycle.   One thing we can try and do is give our partner the benefit of the doubt and try and think the best of them and ascribe the best motives to their behavior.  If we feel they are being unfairly critical instead of flying off the handle we can tell them that we think they are being unfair and talk it over with them.

  To prevent the first cycle we can try not to interpret all criticism as a personal attack.  When we do that we are creating paranoia toward the other person.  If we do something that is hurtful to another person that person has to tell us.  We need to understand that.  We can perceive that criticism as a hostile attack on us as Jane did, or we can perceive that criticism as the person trying to communicate his hurt and trying to make things better between us by communicating.   That person could choose not to communicate and to just break off communications or worse could retaliate.   If the other person is trying to communicate with us that person may be trying to work things out and improve their relationship with us and it's important to appreciate that instead of being paranoid about it.  It's probably better if a person tells us that we are hurting them immediately then if they keep it inside and then strike at us later.  We may be hurting them without knowing it and immediate discussion may prevent escalation.   When a person is communicating with us about the way we have hurt him or her there are two ways to resolve that depending on the situation.  If the person is right that we have hurt them unfairly the way to resolve it is to

  1. Acknowledge we have done wrong
  2. Apologize
  3. Offer to make amends and to try and improve one's behavior in the future.

   If the person is wrong about our behavior then we can respond by explaining why we did what we did that the person found hurtful.

   If my wife has hurt me I want to make her aware of that and want her to acknowledge that she was wrong to do so and to offer to try to make it up to me.  Two often she has reacted with, "Well you're guilty of A B and C" or "stop picking on me and leave me alone".  Whether I'm guilty of A B or C or not does not help address the current hurt that she has caused me.  It just diverts us from dealing with the problem that I am upset about.  If she tells me to stop picking on her and to leave her alone that tells me that not only did she wrong me to begin with, but when I try and talk it over so that we can improve our relationship she hates me for it.  It shows me that there is no hope for making things better.

   Often counterattacks involve making a negative judgement of the other person.  If that person feels we are making an unfair negative judgement of him he is likely to get angry at us and that will escalate the fight.  He is likely to attempt to defend himself against the negative judgement we are making.  If we dismiss what he is saying with another negative judgement we are likely to have a full blown fight on our hands. 

   When we have an argument with someone it's important to listen to what the other person has to say without dismissing what he has to say.  My wife has complained to me that when I'm upset my upset escalates until I explode like a volcano.  What often happens is that are arguments escalate in the manner that I've described.  I've told her that if she just says I'm sorry and gives me a hug that would go a long way from preventing me from erupting.  By doing that she would be showing me she wasn't making a negative judgement of me and I wouldn't feel the need to defend myself and continue the argument.

   We can also reduce the chance of fights by not bringing up past arguments.  If someone criticizes us for not taking out the garbage we don't have to bring up the time they spilled the ink on the carpet.  The way to stop a fight is to address the current problem not bring up old ones.

    Often people don't want to discuss problems.   They are not the most pleasant things to talk about but if one tries to avoid discussing and solving problems they will remain and the fights that will ensue because of those problems will be much more painful than attempts at solving those problems would have been.

    Further discussion of destructive behaviors such as counterattacking are discussed on the conflict page of this web site.

    Why do people often interpret their partner's behavior in a paranoid way?  On reason may be to protect one's self esteem against criticisms from one's partner.  Rather than believe one's partner is right and one is at fault, it's easier on the self esteem to blame one's partner.  Once we blame them they may counterattack and blame us and a fight can result.  One frequent result of fights is paranoia of both sides towards each other. 

    What can we do to stop paranoid misinterpretation other than communicate about it?  One thing we can do is to try and have faith in our partner and to give our partner the benefit of the doubt.  One way that has helped me mend the damage of fights is to start a discussion with "Lets start by understanding that I am a good person and you are a good person".

    I've found that when I try and explain to my girlfriend that she is doing something hurtful and explain what she is doing wrong she may react with the statement that I always think I'm the one who is right.  That is a counterattack.  That is not helpful.  If she has a reason for doing what she is doing it would be better if she explained what it is.  I have to communicate what I think is causing the problem.   Of course I think I'm right.  Everyone thinks they're right (See the rationalization section of this web site). 

    Many people when they are upset with someone bottle it up instead of explaining to the other person that they are making them upset and why.   Then later they take it out on the other person and the other person doesn't know why.  If the other person behaves the same way this can lead to a destructive self feeding miscommunication cycle

    Although it is important to communicate it is also important to be willing to receive the message without attacking the communicator.  A friend of mine told me that she did communicate with her father about feeling hurt and he just became angry at her.  He did not appreciate her attempts at communication and instead reacted in a paranoid and hostile way.  So now she doesn't communicate any more and is in a miscommunication cycle with her father. 

    People want to believe they are right and the other person is wrong.  Often in fights they retaliate against accusations with accusations of their own.  Sometimes people dredge up old grudges as part of the retaliation and the whole thing escalates.  People focus on the hurtful thing the other person did without thinking about what they themselves did before that led the other person to behave in a hurtful way. 

    Tested suggestions for improving communication between couples are given in the book Fighting For Your Marriage by Markham et. al..  One of these techniques is called the Speaker-Listener technique. This technique prevents miscommunication when discussing a problem.  The rules for this technique are given in the book are as follows:

  1. The speaker has the floor.  Use a real object to designate the "floor."  In seminars, we hand out pieces of linoleum or carpet for couples to use as the floor... If you don't have the floor, you're the Listener.
  2. Share the floor.  You share the floor over the course of a conversation.  One person has it to start and may say a number of things.  At some point, you switch roles and continue as the floor changes hands.
  3. No problem solving.  When you use this technique, you're going to focus on having good discussions, not trying to come to solutions prematurely.

Rules for the Speaker:

  1. Speak for yourself.  Don't try to be a mind reader.   Talk about your thoughts, feelings, and concerns, not your perceptions of the Listener's point of view or motives.  Try to use "I" statements, and talk about your own point of view.  "I think you're a jerk" is not an "I" statement. "I was upset when you forgot our date" is.
  2. Stop and Let the Listener paraphrase.

Rules for the Listener:

  1. Paraphrase what you hear...If the paraphrase is not quite right (which happens often), the Speaker should gently clarify the point being made.
  2. Focus on the Speaker's message. Don't rebut.  In the Listener's role, you may not offer your opinion or thoughts.

    If an argument starts to escalate that may be the time to switch to this technique.  Fighting For Your Marriage (page 104) has an excellent example of how a romantic getaway weekend for a couple was about to be ruined by an argument but was saved by use of this technique.

    John Gottman, author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work says that active listening is too hard and claims that it rarely works.

    Whether or not his criticism has truth to it, the principles behind active listening are important.  In active listening the listener has to make an effort to listen nonjudgementally and to make sure they understand what is being said.  The speaker is given an opportunity to explain him or herself without the listener counterattacking or belittling what he has to say and escalating the communication into a destructive fight.

   Markham et. al. also suggest using an XYZ statement when making a complaint such as

"When you do X in situation Y, I feel Z"

    When you use an XYZ statement, you're giving your partner usable information: the specific behavior, the context in which it occurs, and how you feel when it happens.  This is much preferred to what often is offered: a vague description of the problem and some character assassination.

Markham et. al. ask:  "Which of the following statements do you think gives you a better shot at being heard?"

"You are such a slob"


"When you drop your pack and jacket on the floor (X) as you come in the door at the end of the day (Y) I feel angry (Z)."

Examples of Defusing Fights:

   I recently was able to prevent a fight with my fiancée from escalating. 

   The night before I visited her I had very little sleep.   Then I had traveled from another city to see her and arrived at midnight.   During the night she wanted to intimate and I just wanted to sleep.  I told her that and the next morning she accused me of being mean for not letting her be affectionate with me.  I started getting angry at what I felt was an unjust criticism.  Then I decided to try and prevent things from escalating and said to her, if you just let me talk to you a little about this we'll end the fight right now.  I held her in my arms and asked  "Wouldn't you be tired if you had gone to sleep as late as I did for the last two nights?"  She said yes. She explained that I had been harsh when I said it and all she wanted to do was caress me and she would have let me sleep.  I asked her how would I know that's all she wanted to do.  I said I had to make sure she knew I needed to sleep. I said I had explained that to her and she still thought I was mean.   She said "Well you carry on about other things that I do long after I do them."  I said yes there are times that I have done that but we should discuss that another time and discuss our current problem now.  I said I was sorry if I was harsh but I really needed to sleep.  I asked her to give me the benefit of the doubt and to believe me that I was not rejecting her and that I really needed to sleep and that I loved her.  She said allright and that was the end of the fight. 

  Part of the reason I was able to resolve our problem was that I spoke with her in an affectionate way and not an angry one.  I made sure she understood what I was trying to say by asking her questions which she had to respond to.   If her response showed she didn't accept what I was trying to say I could keep working on that.  She tried to counterattack by bringing up when I had carried on about another fight but I bought her back to the issue at hand so we could solve it.   I asked her to give me the benefit of the doubt which is key to couples getting along and she did.

  Another approach I've used to help resolve conflicts if my fiancee is upset at me for something I did, is to point out different interpretations of why I did it and to ask her to believe in the most positive interpretation.

  I proposed to her that we signal each other everytime one of us is upsetting the other.  We tried that approach and I found that I was upsetting her inadvertantly without knowing it.  I responded to her signals by talking things and explaining that I had no intention of upsetting her.  She did the same.  She says it's working and I agree.  We also now signal each other when something one of us is doing makes the other partner happy.

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