This One Technique Can Stop Any Argument Before It Escalates
Picture yourself walking rapidly back and forth in a kitchen, opening cabinets and looking for a can of black beans.
Your partner walks into the kitchen in her jogging gear, at ease, a half-smile on her face. There's perspiration on her forehead. "Hi," she says. "What's for dinner?"
You're angry because you recently asked her to get black beans at the store, and now you can't find any, and it's late, and you're halfway through preparing the dish. You look up and say, "There are no black beans anywhere."
Your partner's shoulders stiffen. "You said you'd get some last week." She removes her earbuds and rolls her eyes. "Wow, you're in a foul mood," she says.
"And you're out jogging while I'm cooking us dinner!" you yell. "I mean, do I have to do all the shopping, now, too?"
Your partner turns away and stomps up the stairs. You throw a spoon into the sink, and it bounces to the floor. "Make your own dinner!" you yell.
What do you do in this situation?
The "Take Two" technique.
I'd like to teach you one fight-stopping strategy that can reestablish peace with your significant other, even in the middle of a fight like this one. The more often you use and practice this technique, the more you'll benefit from it. I call it the "Take Two" technique.
Take Twos are simple (but not necessarily easy). You'll need your partner's buy-in before you start trying these, so talk about it in advance and adapt them to fit you. Maybe share this article and make a plan to try one out during a minor disagreement, at first.
Here's how it works: When you notice a fight has started, stop. Mid-sentence, if necessary. Say to your partner, "Let's do a Take Two."
Once your partner agrees, and you've both taken a few deep breaths, restart the "scene" of your fight from the moment you felt triggered. If there were several trigger points, pick the earliest one you can remember. Then begin the scene again. This time, do it differently—even just a little differently. For example:
- Instead of judging or criticizing, use feeling words and "I" language.
- Instead of sniping or dismissing, turn toward each other with an open mind.
- Exhibit your openness in your posture and facial expression.
- Use a term of endearment.
- Own your feelings, thoughts, and reactions.
Don't worry about being "authentic." It's OK to be messy or stiff. Just do it a little bit more "relationally."
Even if Take Twos seem forced or "sappy," they still work. In fact, the simple act of being willing to disengage from the first "take" of your fight shows you're willing to hold yourself accountable for your part in co-creating the disconnection with your partner. Take Twos are about acknowledging your contribution to a fight, giving yourself and your partner a second chance, forgoing the temptation to defend or punish, and responding a little differently—good differently. Kind differently. Relationally differently.
Hitting the reset button during a fight.
I got the idea of Take Twos when I was making short films in my early 20s. In my brief stint as a movie director, one of the things that amazed me was how actors could fully embody a character and the emotion of that character in a scene realistically and believably—and then instantly stop, reset, and do another take. Often, they would do the next take in a brand-new way, bringing out a hidden layer of their character or a different emotion.
Years later, when I was studying psychology and I got into fights with my boyfriend, I started wondering if I could do with him what I'd seen actors do on a film set. What if, as I was in the middle of escalating a fight, lost in an emotional reaction, I could somehow recognize that the way I was speaking or behaving—no matter how "right" it felt—was just one "take" of the real-life "scene" we were in? What if I could reset and do a second take of the conflict, starting from an earlier point in the fight-triggering sequence of events. Maybe I could do things in a way that was more aligned with my heart and quickly enough to preempt my prideful defensiveness. Maybe I could change the tenor of our interaction right away, avoiding an hours-long "fight hangover." Maybe I could handle fights with a little more humility and a touch of humor.
As it turned out, I could. And so could my boyfriend (now husband). Not always, and not even particularly well at times, but often well enough so that Take Twos became a tool worth relying on. We got better at it. Over time, doing them became easier. We've grown to like them because they can turn things around between us quickly and help defuse our resentment toward one another.
Today, many of the couples I see in my therapy practice also report successfully using Take Twos. Even when a fight seems to be following an old, entrenched dynamic, some couples have told me they're able to ask for and grant each other the opportunity to do a Take Two, which in itself and of itself has deescalated the fight.
What it looks like in action.
Let's do a Take Two of the bean fight scenario above.
Once your partner has stomped up the stairs, and you've retrieved the spoon from the sink, you take a deep breath. Your heart is beating fast, you're fuming, but you also recognize that you're stressed out and angry about lots of little things that have (or haven't) happened, today and yesterday and this whole week. Several factors have contributed to your reactivity about the lack of black beans in the pantry. You walk to the bottom of the stairs and call out, "Hey, can we do a Take Two?" You've already discussed Take Twos with your partner—maybe even shared this article with them.
"OK," she calls out. "Give me a minute."
When she comes back downstairs, you agree on the starting point.
"Hi," she says, walking into the kitchen, again. "What's for dinner?"
"I'm trying to make a black bean salad," you say. "And I've been looking everywhere for black beans, but I can't find any. So in my mind, I'm really, really tempted to snap at you and make this mean you're irresponsible and don't care because I remember asking you to get black beans last week."
"Well, I appreciate you not snapping at me," your partner says.
"It just feels like I'm doing everything these days," you say. "I feel overwhelmed."
"The reason I didn't get black beans was because there were none on the shelves in the store. I got kidney beans, though. Can you use those instead?"
Your partner smiles, and you shrug sheepishly. You still don't feel 100% fabulous—there's some of that fidgety, bristly "fight energy" in your body—but you do feel less reactive, more in control, and grateful to your partner for doing a Take Two with you.
"Sure," you say. "And maybe we could watch something on Netflix later. I feel like we're ships passing in the night these days, and I want to spend time with you."
"Hug?" your partner offers. "If you don't mind me being all sweaty."
Becoming a better partner.
Take Twos can give couples the lived experience of control in situations that sometimes feel out-of-control. They're a concrete and sometimes playful way to step back from a reaction and make a better choice.
Even if your Take Twos feel scripted or lack spontaneity, it's possible to accept them as "practice runs" of how things might unfold next time. And it's empowering to know that you can both practice doing something to stop a fight in its tracks and move your interaction in the direction of ownership, reconnection, and repair.
If you want to make the Take Two even more effective, find out what your partner might have needed you to say or do differently at the moment the fight escalated. Incorporate that into your Take Two. Allow yourself to practice being the conscious partner you wished you could have been from the beginning—and are growing into becoming right now.
Alicia Muñoz, LPC, is a certified couples therapist, licensed professional counselor, and author of four relationship books, including Stop Overthinking Your Relationship: Break the Cycle of Anxious Rumination to Nourish Love, Trust, and Connection With Your Partner (New Harbinger Publications, 2022). Over the past sixteen years, she has provided individual, group, and couples therapy in clinical settings, including Bellevue Hospital in New York, NY. Muñoz currently works as a Senior Writer and Editor at Psychotherapy Networker and as a couples therapist in private practice. She connects with her readers and followers through monthly blogs, newsletters, and podcasts as well as through Instagram at @aliciamunozcouples, and Facebook and Twitter at @aliciamunozlpc. Muñoz is a member of the Washington School of Psychiatry, the American Psychological Association, and the Mid-Atlantic Association of Imago and Relationship Therapists. You can learn more about her at www.aliciamunoz.com.