How to Stop an Argument in Its Tracks

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

Fortunately, my husband and I don’t argue very often. I think that’s partly because we’re both psychotherapists who’ve had a lot of training in communication skills. It’s also because neither of us has any problem saying we’re wrong about something, nor do we have any difficulty apologizing when it’s called for. We also both really want to live in an atmosphere of peace. When stuff does come up between us, we’re both motivated to resolve it as soon as possible, and for the most part, we know how.

That being typed, there have been some bumps in the road; times where one or both of us doesn’t feel understood or like we’re getting what we want or need. It‘s during these challenging times that I’ve reached for a tool I’ve found extremely helpful. A tool that’s become tried and true for me and my husband, as well as many of my clients and students.

It goes like this:

First, you press pause on the conversation. Time out. In a respectful manner, you ask for a break to gather your thoughts and feelings.

Next, you write (or type) two letters. The first letter is from your partner to yourself. So, in my case, I write as if my husband is writing to me. I write everything I wish he would say. I pile it on. This letter is exactly what I’d want to hear regarding the tangle we’ve been in.

Whether you can actually imagine your partner saying or writing the words you long to hear is not as important as you getting clear on what you’d love to hear and giving these sentiments to yourself.

You don’t necessarily need to share this letter with your partner, though you certainly can. When I’ve done this exercise, I haven’t always shared my letter with my husband. Usually, just writing it and clarifying what I want to hear softens something inside of me. I remember one time when I did share my wish-list letter with him and the guy actually sent it back to me with a heart emoji and his signature at the bottom. A keeper, I know.

The second letter is from you to your partner. Here, you step into your partner’s shoes. You really tune into how you think they must be feeling about the conflict you’ve been dealing with. You drop your story, defenses, and convictions, and you genuinely try to understand your partner’s side of the street.

I usually share this letter with my husband. Who doesn’t want to be showered with genuine understanding and empathy? If I decide not to share the actual letter, my attitude adjustment from writing it always shines through once we reconvene, so the benefits are reaped either way.

That’s it. Time out. Two letters from the heart. One from your partner to you stating exactly what you want to hear. Next, from you to your partner with some genuine empathy.

Getting clear on what you’d love to hear from your partner and giving those words to yourself is an empowering process that enables us to soften our own hearts.

Tuning into your partner’s feelings with a sincere desire to understand them can melt whatever defenses or wounds may have arisen between you.

I have seen this powerful two-step process transform a tangled web of emotions and unmet needs into a clear path of compassion, clarity, and resolution. I hope you’ll give it a try.

View on Psychology Today

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