How to Diffuse a Fight
In the small room where Tim and Stacey are arguing, the atmosphere has turned icy. "It's not like I wrote down the worst problem I have," Tim is saying, his eyes downcast. "I mean, um, you're bossy."
"Yes, I'm bossy," Stacey snaps back. "I like to control my situation. I offer suggestions. It's not like I'm being a mom. Tell me one time I acted like a mom."
"Um, I don't know," Tim says. "My mind is blank. I... " His voice trails off.
"The classic pattern you see is the demand-withdrawal dynamic," Diamond whispers, referring to a pattern in which the woman makes demands and the man, in response, shuts down. It turns out that each behavior has striking corollaries within the body. "The man usually finds it calming to withdraw from the conflict," Diamond says. His heart rate drops. His breathing slows. Yet, as he pulls away, "the woman watches in growing frustration. She's thinking, 'Why won't he talk to me?'" Her heart rate rises. Her breathing becomes shallow and short. "The more he withdraws, the more physiologically aroused she becomes."
If you're the demanding partner in this dynamic, your best response at this point is surprisingly simple: Listen to your heart, literally. Monitor your physiology. If your heart is racing, your breathing ragged, your eyes ablaze, step back and take a deep breath. Close your eyes. Calm down. This small action can be surprisingly consequential, even profound. "The body is so fundamentally involved in our relationships," Diamond says. "But few of us pay attention to it."
Your own body's cues aren't the only ones worth paying attention to, however. The most important small gesture you can make toward your partner is to empathize. Consider that the very behavior making you nuts—his mumbling and emotional retreat—is calming for him, Diamond says. "It's quite possible that he can't respond in any other way. Our conflict styles develop over a lifetime." So don't raise your voice and demand that he continue engaging in that persistent fight about money or housework or friendships or sex (topics that recur constantly in Diamond's work). Let him withdraw.
Keep Reading: What to do after you've calmed down