Imagine you and your spouse are arguing about something. Before you know it, there are stronger emotions, louder voices and less understanding. It’s like the two of you have just stepped onto an escalator — not a literal escalator in your living room, but an emotional escalator. You’ve increased the intensity of your interaction and left the issue you’re arguing about on the “ground floor.” It’s as if you’ve both stepped onto those unyielding metal steps and are being carried up to the next level of emotion.

If you look behind you, you see you’re not alone on this escalator ride. Blocking your way down are all the similar arguments from the past, the thoughts of how your or your spouse’s parents handled life and other emotional baggage. You feel stuck as you continue your ascent to the second level.

The farther up you go on the escalator, the less focused you are on the ground-floor issue. You’ve given up trying to come to an agreement and start verbally attacking the other person. This is when you reach Level Two and start to say and hear these types of comments: 

  • “If you really took the time to think about it.”
  • “If you really cared.”
  • “If you were more sensitive.”
  • “If you were more submissive.”

You want to stop fighting, but your emotions are growing even more heated. As the escalator ride takes you up to a landing zone, there’s a chance to turn around (think “repent”). You can step onto the down escalator and return to the issue level, or you can keep moving up to a third level of emotion.

When you’ve reached Level Three, you’re tired of trying to force the other person into your way of thinking. This is where you might begin to question the relationship. You may start to think (or say), “If these are the kind of issues we’re facing — and if you’re that kind of person — then what in the world am I doing in this relationship!” or “I’m done with trying to connect or be attached. I’m out of this relationship.” You may begin emotionally withdrawing from the relationship in an effort to stop fighting, but that can quickly lead to physically leaving your spouse and even legal separation.

Take it from a marriage and family counselor — if you spend too much time at Level Two, one day you’ll find yourself skipping right past that level. At that point, even small, Level One issues (forgetting to pick up the laundry, squeezing the toothpaste tube in the “wrong” way, not closing the garage door, etc.) can instantly move you and your argument from Level One to Level Three.

With our pasts and our pride, it’s so easy to allow our emotional energy to carry us up and up the emotional escalator. The good news is this: Instead of letting negative emotions carry you toward the third-floor way of thinking, you can always change direction and step onto the down escalator.

Here’s how you can stay off the escalator and keep your discussions on Level One.

Three ways to get off the escalator and stop fighting

1. Don’t be like Spock

The classic “Star Trek” character Spock is a Vulcan, a species that favors knowledge and logic over displays of emotion. His efforts to hide any obvious human feelings (spoiler alert) doesn’t sit well with Lieutenant Uhura or the other Enterprise crew members. Similarly, when we ignore or try to dismiss emotions, it often doesn’t go over well with our spouse. 

Oftentimes, what moves arguments from Level One (the issue) to Level Two (the person) is when one person becomes a “withdrawer” and the other person a “pursuer.” For example, let’s say your spouse grew up in a home that functioned as Spock does, where emotions were not recognized or affirmed. If emotions around an issue with your spouse become strong, the “Spock spouse” often steps away or withdraws to stop fighting. Often the other spouse senses this withdrawal, and to compensate, pursues the withdrawer. The pursuer wants the other spouse to come back and engage with the issue.

When someone steps back from us for any reason, it can remind us of past times when a loss of connection has impacted our lives. That’s when the very thing that can bring us closer — emotions — is blamed as the source of our problems. It’s also why it doesn’t do any good to “outlogic” someone else’s emotions by saying, “Honey, just calm down. This isn’t a big issue. Let’s deal with it logically.” It’s in moments like these when so many — including my wife, Cindy, and myself — have moved from discussing an issue to stepping onto that emotional escalator.

How do we stop fighting? How do we keep negative emotions from pushing us toward a place of hurt and away from health? To use emotions as a positive tool for growth and change, we need to realize that we were created for connection. And like Jesus, we are fully human when we have emotions!

2. Become a “sportscaster”

What do good sportscasters do? They use words to describe what’s happening on the field. They give us perspective and help us understand how the game is progressing.

Let’s go back to the withdrawer and pursuer for a moment. The pursuer is the one rushing toward the other spouse, trying to get them to make a decision or return to the discussion and be engaged. The withdrawer is worried that these emotions aren’t “safe” so they step away — not because they don’t care — but because they’re uncomfortable with the emotions and want to stop fighting.

That’s when it’s time to become a sportscaster, to start saying what you’re seeing. It doesn’t matter which one of you is the first to become the sportscaster in your home (Cindy and I often seem to take turns.) Whoever first realizes that you’re on that dreaded escalator ride again says it.

Here’s an example. “I know we were talking about this issue. But I’m sensing and seeing that we’re getting off the issue and have moved up to Level Two. I see that because we’re both getting louder (or stepping away, or pointing, or turning away, etc.). Let’s get back to Level One, stop fighting, and talk about the main issue.”

This verbal play-by-play or “I see what we’re doing” reminder is usually enough to slow down the argument. Now you’re able to name the problem. You can see what you’re doing and realize you can make changes in your actions and the outcome of your discussion and stop fighting. You also know that you don’t have to go all the way to Level Three!

3. Take a time out

“Do not let the sun go down on your anger”(Ephesians 4:26) is often misapplied. This verse can be used to communicate this: “I don’t care how you feel, we’re going to keep talking and solve this issue right now! Come on! Make a decision or see things my way. The sun’s almost down!” If that kind of thinking is followed, the pursuer ends up chasing the withdrawer, resulting in both people growing more upset no matter where the sun is located!

With most couples, one person (often the withdrawer) is likely to be a “processor.” Instead of pushing that person to make a decision, it helps to give this spouse time to process options, gather more facts and understanding and then talk about the issue when they’re ready.

That’s why, for eight years in a row, Cindy and I overpaid babysitters for one hour every Tuesday night. During that hour we’d go to the local mall’s food court so we could talk through any tough or emotional issues that had come up. After all, Cindy is half Irish and half Italian — and I’m extremely verbal. Before we arrived at our food court table, we often prayed, sought counsel from Scripture or godly people if needed and told each other we were committed to each other no matter what. Each week we carved out that specific time for the escalator issues. When an argument reached Level Two and it still bothered her or me, we discussed it at the food court.

We committed to a time and place for these discussions so the processer in our family (Cindy) could gather all the facts and thoughts she needed, and the pursuer in our family (me) had to slow down and not force a decision. This allowed us to go to bed any day of the week in a good frame of mind. We knew Tuesday was coming when we would talk about any unresolved issue.

Seek peace

If that emotional escalator ride is one you’ve taken too often, understand that it’s normal and natural in a marriage. That doesn’t mean it’s helpful or reflective of our loving someone like Jesus. To stop fighting and seek peace, have the courage to “say it” if you see the two of you stuck on an unhealthy escalator ride. Don’t deny your emotions, but use them to connect with each other. Modeling your commitment and caring for each other may not get a table named after you at the food court, but it can strengthen your love for each other — whatever the issue.

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