A Simple Way to Stop an Argument Before It Gets Toxic

Man standing in kitchen with hands on his hips looking angry. A woman's hand in the foreground is positioned to hit a pause button
Sarah Carter

It was a regular Wednesday evening. The workday had ended. The sun was melting into the earth. Jeremy came in through the front door, another marker of sorts that we had made it through the day. I was so happy to spend this night at home with him, this time to come together, making dinner and doing nothing unusual. We set out to decide what to do. Maybe we should play a board game. Or we could read a book.

But before we could settle on anything, an argument emerged. Disagreements are so sly, like moving a box and discovering a spider. You don't expect the spider to be there, but suddenly you're throwing down the box and running away. One minute everything is calm and lovely, and the next thing you know, you're in a fight you didn't see coming.

Jeremy and I used to become embroiled in discord easily. That's why we had to learn how to say "Pause!" It's our code word for stopping an argument that is getting too heated too fast. That evening we were able to stop the conflict before it became toxic. Here's how the "pause process" works for us.

Spinning out of control

I often get exasperated during disagreements with Jeremy because we approach conflict so differently. I yell, and he retreats. Which makes me yell louder. Which makes him retreat more. The hurt and resentment quickly build unless someone shoves a rod into the spinning wheel of our argument to stop it.

As that Wednesday evening disagreement went from small miscommunication to my deciding to bring up all the ways Jeremy has ever hurt me (I do not recommend this), Jeremy interrupted. "Pause?"

Pause is the rod Jeremy and I need to stop the acceleration of a toxic argument. Pause has become one of the most powerful words in our relationship, but one I hated for years because I feared we would never work toward resolution. I feared bitterness would grow. But before Jeremy and I pause, we set a time and date to return to the conversation — a time to return when I'm not reeling in past accusations and he's not shutting down.

Coming together

That night, we hit pause and immediately put on our aprons and started cooking soup. We listened to Latin music and danced around the kitchen while chopping and stirring. We hit pause, and we meant it. We don't complicate it. It really is that easy.

For us, committing to the pause means remembering that God has brought us together and that we are for each other. The pause means we understand we are human and flawed and marriage is not always going to be easy. So when we hit pause, we lay down our accusations and come together.

The pause does not mean there will never be resolution. It's just an acknowledgment that right now our communication is not healthy; it's spiraling downward. The pause is our way to remember that what God brought together, no one should tear apart, and most often we are the ones trying to tear us apart. But not in the pause. The pause allows us to ask for God's unending grace and mercy. The pause is the reset.

Bri McKoy is the author of Come and Eat: A celebration of love and grace around the everyday table.

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This article first appeared in the August/September 2018 issue of Focus on the Family magazine and was originally titled "Pressing 'Pause.' " If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Focus on the Family's marriage and parenting magazine. Get this publication delivered to your home by subscribing to it for a gift of any amount.
© 2018 by Bri McKoy. Used by permission.

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