Why Conflicts Escalate

Why Conflicts Escalate  How do seemingly innocent interactions, the so-called “harmless arguments,” escalate into serious conflicts? Arguments sometimes evolve from small things that grew big.  Imagine this scenario:  the day camp season is over so the children were home all day.  It was hot, she had guests, the telephone didn’t stop ringing, the children finished playing all their games and listening to all their tapes and eating her out of house and home.  Now they are bored, bored, bored!  There are still two weeks until school begins, but they already bought all their school supplies and have nothing left to do, so it has been one of those super-difficult days.  And she’s tired, frustrated and upset.
To add to her misery, her husband, who hasn’t touched a tool or done anything around the house for years, has decided that today is the day he will finally hang the toy shelves in the children’s room.  So he’s up on the ladder, and he calls:  “Where’s the hammer?”A small thing, her tiredness escalated into a huge argument that ended in, “You never help me!” He jumps from the ladder and leaves the house.  She goes into her room, slams the door, and cries her heart out.Let’s rerun this scene and attempt to analyze what went wrong.  How did her tiredness grow so completely out of proportion that it exploded into an argument totally unrelated to what was bothering her?

First, we have to realize that they were not arguing about the hammer, or about the shelf.  Those were just the “presenting problems,” not the real problems.This is similar to what happens in the doctor’s office where a patient might arrive complaining of headaches (the “presenting problem”) when the real problem might be a need for glasses, or that s/he has just been passed over for a long hoped-for promotion.
 When we find ourselves arguing so fiercely about something as trivial as a hammer, or an uncooked meal, it behooves us to stop a moment and ask ourselves a few questions.  She: “What is the true problem that is masquerading in the form of a “hammer”?  Do I feel too alone?  Do I feel I don’t get enough cooperation?  Does he feel I never have patience for him?”  He: “Why am I so upset about her priorities in household matters?  Do I feel she isn’t a partner in my difficult days?  Do I feel that although I don’t ask for much, even my minimal needs are not regularly met?”
Examine what is going on in your life, and try to understand the undercurrents, what was really going on while you thought you were arguing about a “hammer” or an eagerly anticipated “home cooked meal.” If you aren’t sure, ask yourself:  “What would my response have been had my best friend asked for a hammer?  How would I have reacted had my best friend disappointed me?  Despite my tiredness, despite my disappointment or annoyance, would I have reacted in the same way?”  If the honest answer is “no,” admit that you weren’t being fair.  Why should you have less respect for your marital relationship than for your friendship?  Isn’t your marriage more important to you?  If the answer to that question is “no,” seek professional help immediately. But let’s assume your answer to that last question was, “Yes, my marriage is more important to me than my friendship,” then what you have to do is use this argument as a red light to stop, analyze, and then address the underlying problems so they will improve.
Another type of conflict to guard against is the type in which both sides involve others.  She involves her brother, he involves his sister, and then the sparks really fly in a war that can last longer than any other kind.Why?  Because the two original disputing parties might one day tire of it and decide, “Enough, let bygones be bygones.”  However, in arguments that involve others they can’t, because the others who are involved won’t let the matter rest!  You might have already begun speaking to your husband, but his brother isn’t speaking to your sister and your mother isn’t speaking to his, and everyone suffers, needlessly sometimes for years.
Another minefield to be aware of and avoid are simple arguments that escalate into serious conflicts because you didn’t confine your argument to one particular topic.Instead, in the heat of the argument, one or both of you dragged in a variety of complaints, both current and ancient.

The original goals of these arguments were to express feelings (her disappointment at the lack of formula), or to suggest an alternative action(taking the toaster to the repair shop).  These seemingly simple discussions escalated into global sessions of blaming, shaming and name-calling.  Why does this happen? One reason might be that when you or your spouse feels that you are being attacked, the natural defensive reaction is to bring in additional ammunition to strengthen your position.  Or you might feel that your initial, single complaint isn’t strong enough to make an impression on your spouse, so you back it up with additional examples, thus bolstering your message.  Whatever the reason, the proliferation of issues usually escalates a simple argument into a painful conflict.

 Another element that adds fuel to the fire is when one of the “fighters” gets personal.  Most couples who get upset about specific issues feel free to bring them up with each other, which is how it should be.  However, when the argument moves from the realm of specific, limited issues to an attack on your spouse’s entire personality, the result is very damaging.

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