Why Arguments Spiral Out of Control in Relationships

When you are in the heat of an argument, your brain seems to be fixed on “hot,” doesn’t it? It’s not just you.

Your brain clusters memory by emotions, explained a recent article by SmartRelationships.org. What this means is that when we are sad, all we can recall at that moment are sad memories. When we are angry, we can only recall moments when we were angry. When we are happy, we recall only happy memories. “This explains why arguments can so easily descend into a long list of past offenses.”

You’ve been there, right? During the disagreement, you can’t remember all the good reasons you married your spouse. You can’t access your positive feelings. This is why saddle bagging (bringing up old hurts and conflicts) is so common. You suddenly have access to all these negative memories that were hidden to you before the argument.

What can you do to counter this tendency? Waiting a little while to allow yourself to gain perspective can help you return to a happier place where you can access positive memories again.

This concept of memory clustering is a relatively new concept for me, and one I think we would do well to remember ourselves and to educate others about when they are in conflict, especially older kids and teens. “Let them know that when it seems like the end of the world, it’s only the brain being unable to access memories from a different emotional state,” according to SmartRelationships.org.

What this has to do with is developing resilience and emotional intelligence in your marriage. Sometimes you have to “unstick” your mind by focusing on something else, or by being willing to step away until you are calm. You can help increase resilience in your marriage by offering care and support and by developing a better ability to manage strong feelings and impulses.  You can only control your own reactions and behavior.

Remember that if you both didn’t care so much you wouldn’t be as upset as you are about your differences. After calming down, take time to listen and focus on effective communication (not just getting your point across). Focus on your goal of working through the issue toward better understanding for the future, rather than focusing on “winning” the argument.

What goes through your mind during the heat of an argument? Is this issue of memory clustering harder for you or your spouse to get past?

Lori Lowe is the author of First Kiss to Lasting Bliss: Hope & Inspiration for Your Marriage. It tells the inspiring, true stories of couples who used adversity to improve their marriages–from overcoming drug addiction to cancer, infidelity, religious differences, family interference and infertility, among many others. It’s available at Amazon.com and in all e-book formats at www.LoriDLowe.com.

Photo courtesy of Liz Noffsinger/Freedigitalphotos.net.

7 responses to “Why Arguments Spiral Out of Control in Relationships

  1. I’m thinking happy thoughts.

  2. Great idea, hopefully that will spiral upward! xo

  3. Pingback: Life: Don’t go to bed angry « Wining Wife

  4. Great post Lori,

    I’d say we’re lucky in that we’re pretty in tune with this clustering, are aware of it and so try to take the sting out of the argument before trying to discuss things rationally. Humor and candor help no end.

    Big love

  5. Grace, you are very fortunate! And yes humor and candor are great helpers. Hopefully you can spread the message to help other couples deal with these obstacles. Thanks for the note!

  6. Over thy years I have gone through different stages when in an argument. I can remember early in my marriage that when in an argument I was so fixated on being right that my brain was not thinking about anything else.

    To say that this was bad for our marriage is an understatement!

    As we learned more about ourselves and how we reacted in these situations it truly helped us get past this time. What we realized in our marriage is that when a discussion started to turn into an argument we had to step away and let our brains focus on something else.

    It is not uncommon for us now to bring something up, discuss for a bit, & then shelve it until the next day so that we can process everything. This has become one of the best ways for us to stop arguments from spinning out of control.

    • Thanks for sharing your learning curve. I’m sure we sometimes all fall into old habits but this is a great area to make progress. Cheers!

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