Stop an Argument in Five Seconds


The little stress monster inside of me loves to come out and play while Erich and I are driving. I don’t get road rage. I am a benevolent and good-humored driver. But when Erich gets in the passenger seat, all hell breaks loose.

“You were supposed to turn left.

“I did turn left.”

“The other left.”

“You’re twenty-two-years-old and you still don’t know left from right?”

“I’m not the one going back to kindergarten.”

“You know, I don’t appreciate your tone.”

“I’m not giving you any tone.”

YesYou are. Stop talking to me like that.”

“No, don’t turn there — great, now we’re going the opposite direction.”

“Hello? Can you please stop treating me like a kid?”

“Fine, do your own thing. You never listen to me.”

You don’t even know your left from your right.

Ad nauseam, car ride ruined.

I think, one, we both hate being in the car; two, it’s blistering hot and our air conditioning broke; and three, we’re new to the city, and we’re tired of getting lost going to places full of strangers and expenses. A missed turn triggers all of the sweaty exhaustion in both of us.

We’ve instituted preventative measures: purposing out loud to not argue during the entire car trip, sometimes by invoking the deity to aid our self-control efforts, and celebrating every five minutes we don’t argue. “I can’t believe we’re not arguing yet! High five, husband!”

And things are better now, even though we still don’t have air conditioning.

But when the heat and the exhaustion wears our self-control thin, we’ve found another quick, easy trick to stop our bickering cold: call a time-out.

Erich and I are both kind, loving people willing to be humble and apologetic. We’re also stubborn and proud and aware that our particular ideas are best and our particular motivations our pure, especially compared to the other spouse’s.

We feed off each other. If I keep responding like a jerk, Erich’s responses get shorter and snarkier. We’ll create an infinite loop of escalating sarcastic jabs until I storm off into the bathroom and realize how idiotic and unimpressive my response was. It’s hard to be humble and vulnerable in such a dog-eat-dog argument.

But if someone calls a truce, the tension snaps: “Look, let’s just stop right here. Let’s stop arguing, let’s change our tones, and let’s forget this happened, okay?”

It’s an invitation to be humble on one, two, three, go. Nobody’s being the goody-two-shoes. Nobody feels one-upped. Nobody has to even apologize. Both of us, at the same time, get a free pass to change our tones, attitudes, and words without negative repercussions.

And soon after the other person accepts the truce with a sullen, “Fine,” we’re overflowing with guilt, apologies, and sane conversation about the little thing that started up the whole dumb argument in the first place.

It takes five seconds, tops, to say, “Let’s just stop right here and forget the whole thing happened.” It takes five seconds to create an easy space for humility. We all want to be humble. We just don’t want to obey a self-righteous demand to be humble. We want the assurance that our loved one won’t continue to hate our guts if we do get vulnerable and apologetic. And, frankly, we want to see our loved one as equally apologetic and humble as we. “Let’s just stop right here and forget the whole thing” is the invitation that accommodates all of those things.

Even on the worst of car rides, we haven’t rejected that invitation yet. High five, husband!

Do you have any other advice for stopping an argument dead in its tracks?

// More on avoiding arguments and de-stressing

4 thoughts on “Stop an Argument in Five Seconds

  1. heather

    I started announcing, “I Have A Grumpy” to mean “I’m mad and it isn’t about you but you are in the line of fire so it is going to be taken out on you.” It tends to make the other person realize that anything said isn’t personal.


  2. Korie

    Oh man… We usually do the total opposite of this. It’s actually really effective, but sometimes can be a little too involved.

    Whenever I feel a strong emotion, I ask myself (or God) why I am feeling that way, or what is it triggering. Because usually, “small things” are manifestations of underlying beliefs that are pivotal in how we operate. When we fight over driving, what is actually happening is that I believe that he should be a better, more confident driver. Because I believe that men should be skilled, confident drivers. Because they are men. And it’s totally unfair to hold my husband to some societal standard, just like I would be livid if he expected me to wear a size 2 because that’s what women are supposed to look like. For the past year or so, my husband and I have started processing these things, and it has been so helpful in our marriage. Sometimes the answer is as simple as the fact that I’m hungry or tired or hot or all three, but even then, there is a reason that my discomfort manifests in lashing out towards him instead of elsewhere.

    Anyways. Just my two cents!


    • Bailey Steger

      So true! For us, as crankier people, we have to stop the argument, negative emotions, and accusatory tones before going on to this deeper level of conversation that you describe. Once we’ve stopped bickering about those little things, we end up spilling our guts in a healthy, deep conversation.

      And gosh….those expectations! I *hate* them, and they’re *everywhere.* Where on earth do they come from?!


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