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Dr David Christian Marriage Advice

How to Stop Escalating Problems with Your Spouse

How to Stop Escalating Problems with Your Spouse

Editor's Note: Do you need relationship advice from Dr. David Hawkins, best-selling author of When Pleasing Others is Hurting You and Dealing with the CrazyMakers in Your Life? Send your questions to to be answered in his new advice column. 

Have you noticed how quickly things can escalate when talking about a tense issue with your mate? Are you sometimes taken by surprise at how angry you can get in such a short time? 

Welcome to relationships. Two people, with two different agendas and two different sets of emotions, can lead to undesirable tension and words spoken that you later regret. 

Scripture tells us that the tongue is a fierce weapon: “Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” (James 3:5-6)

We know what the Apostle James is talking about. We’ve been there and done that. 

“I never meant to lose my cool,” the woman said to me in a counseling session. “It just sneaks up on me. One minute I’m fine and the next I’m saying things I later regret.” 

“Me, too,” her husband said. “I know I never mean to lose my cool, but it sure happens.” 

“Is there anything predictable about these times?” I asked. 

“Sure,” she said quickly. “It’s almost always when we’re under pressure. Maybe we have a deadline to meet or we’ve had a house full of guests.” 

“It might be when I’ve had a long day at work,” he added. “When I’ve got pressure I work I know I am more irritable with my wife.”

“If he is impatient with me, I know I’m more impatient with him,” she noted. 

“So,” I said. “While you’ll never have perfect control, self-awareness is a key to having healthy relationships and managing your emotion.”

Yes, it’s true. We never need to “lose control.” We can do much to prepare for difficult encounters but it requires exquisite self-awareness and a willingness to be perfectly tuned into your body and your mind. 

Consider how you pay attention to the running of your car. It’s second nature to monitor the gas tank, the sound of the engine and the functioning of your brakes. You would never consider taking your car out onto the freeway low on gas with brakes squeaking and the engine missing. Why? You don’t want to be stranded seeking help.

Look at your body and your emotions the same way and consider these additional steps of action: 

First, pay attention to your body and emotions. Our bodies register everything going on with us. When threatened our brains kick into fight or flight. We ready ourselves for action and this can work against us listening well to our mate. Notice your breathing, your emotions and the state of your body.

Second, monitor your thinking. Guard against catastrophic thinking. Pay attention to stories you tell yourself, such as “I can’t stand this,” or “They can’t talk to me like this.” Remind yourself that this situation will pass and how you handle yourself will make all the difference.

Third, take steps to calm yourself and your emotions. It is your responsibility to remain calm and connected. You won’t be able to think clearly if you slip into fight or flight mode. If in fight or flight, you will stop listening and either retreat or lash out—both are unhelpful and hurtful. Instead, ask for a few minutes to calm yourself and begin to think clearly again.

Fourth, use de-escalating language with your mate. How you talk about a problem makes ALL the difference. If you are provocative and accusatory, expect an adverse reaction from your mate. If you remain calm and seek solutions, speaking respectfully, you increase the likelihood of receiving a calm response from your mate and will be able to solve problems. Be quick to own anything you say that is hurtful and settle back into work with, not against, your mate.

Finally, stay focused on what you really want to fight for. Remember what you’re fighting for. Stay focused. Keep the end goal in mind. Presumably you want a solution that works for both of you. Presumably you want harmony and goodwill, connection and warmth. Keep those goals ever present and ask yourself if you are doing all you can to reach those goals. 

Consider taking this challenge: watch your breathing, your body, your emotions and your thinking. Monitor yourself, much like you monitor your car. Keep yourself tuned up and ready to talk about difficult things with calm and clarity. 

If you would like further help, we are here for you. Please send responses to me at and read more about The Marriage Recovery Center on our website and learn about our Personal and Marriage Intensives as well as our newly formed Subscription Group, Thrive, for women struggling from emotional abuse. 

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