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The Anatomy of an Argument That Spins "Out of Control"

Learning to Identify the Choices You Make When You Are Angry

by Dave Decker M.A.

  • ANGRY PEOPLE ARE CONTINUALLY MAKING CHOICES, even though they may feel and look completely "out-of-control" to themselves and those who happen to be around them at the time.
  • THE ESCALATION TO MORE INTENSE ANGER and explosive and punishing behavior can be increased by simply reacting to the situation and the other person's behaviors, or it can be allowed to decrease by actively making more positive choices to avoid thoughts, verbal statements, or actions that continue to infame the situation.
  • THE INTENSITY OF YOUR ANGER IS DETERMINED by controlling and entitled attitudes and the rationalizations and justifications that are used to continue to engage with the other person. The more "rounds" two people go with each other, the more reasons they will find for continuing and escalating the altercation even further.
  • TRULY UNDERSTANDING YOUR PUNISHING AND EXPLOSIVE ANGER requires the willingness and ability to analyze an argument and see its natural steps of development or escalation. To help you recongnize these steps, we will now analyze an argument that involves two angry and aggessive people in which provocation leads to provocation, ending ultimately in destructive and hurtful behavior that dramatically affects how both people feel about the other.
  • THE SEQUENCE OF EVENTS BELOW is reconstructed from many of the stories that clients have shared with me over the years about the choices they have made in the midst of arguments. These poor choiicdeds become part of the reson they end up feeling so little respect, trust and safety in their relationships with one another.

 Some Examples of Steps and Choices
That Can Occur in An Argument:

STEP 1:  I come home after a long day at the office at 7 PM.  I’m feeling incredibly tense these days because of a big project at work that I’m part of.  I’m later than usual in getting home and I forgot to call my wife to let her know I’d be running behind.  As soon as I walk in the door, my wife starts to “rag” on me about what “brats” the kids (12 and 9-year-old boys) have been since they got home from school.  She told me that the boys “got into it” with each other and our older son made the younger one cry by punching him in the arm.  She is also angry that they had to wait on dinner for me.  I actually think about asking her to give me some time to change my clothes and take a little time for myself before we talk about the kids but instead I get immediately defensive and start getting louder with her.

He makes the choice to immediately engage with his wife rather than taking some time for himself to calm down after his long and stressful workday.  He thought about and could have made the choice to leave temporarily to change his clothes but he doesn’t do this which only allows the discussion to begin to escalate further.


STEP 2: My wife just has to start talking about how much I work and then starts to “nag” me about how I’m “never home” and how I’m “not the kind of husband and father” I should be.”  I am so sick of her “bitching” about my work hours and how I’m never “good enough” for her.  After all, I figure I’m doing all of this for her and the kids but she never seems to give me any credit for how much I put in for her and our family.  I try to “reason” with her at first, but she won’t listen to what I want her to hear so I start to make fun of what she is saying to me, mocking her in a “sing-song” voice.  I know it “drives her nuts” to have me talk that way to her.  My thoughts about her are really getting negative the whole time I’m doing this.

He makes the choice initially to try to “reason” with his wife to get her to “back off” and stop talking to him but that doesn’t work to get her to stop complaining.  So he decides to “make fun” of his wife, knowing that this will hurt her and potentially escalate the situation (although he may also believe that this will work to stop the argument at that point).  Another choice he could have made could have been to go into another room, sit down, and actually listen and try to empathize with how hard her day has been and how frustrated she is feeling with their kids right now.  He makes the choice to mock her as a way of punishing her for “questioning” him and his self-worth despite knowing how much this hurts her.


STEP 3: My wife escalates even more and calls me a “jerk” and an “asshole.”  I really don’t like it when she starts to call me names so, since she has started the name-calling, I yell at her about what a “lazy stupid bitch” she is.  She really hates it when I call her the “b” word.  That really “gets her going” and, by this time, we are both screaming as loudly as we can at each other, not even thinking about the kids, who are in their bedrooms.

His wife starts the “mud-slinging” related to name-calling, which is never helpful when an escalation is moving upward.  He makes the choice to immediately respond “in kind,”  fueled in part by the negative thoughts he has already been having, believing that, at this point, she is really “asking for it” and he has an additional and “valid” reason to “punish” her even further (which, again, he may hope will “shut her down”).


STEP 4: My wife is completely exasperated at this point and turns around and starts leaving the living room to go back into the kitchen.  I am really pissed now and I am blaming her for “ruining the whole evening” so I follow her into the kitchen to “finish this discussion” and get her to admit that she was wrong to treat me this way when I walk in the door.

His wife is actually trying to de-escalate the situation by going to another room even if she is not taking what could be called a “respectful” time-out.  But he chooses to allow his hostile and cynical thinking to “take over” and he makes the decision to follow her into the other room to continue the “discussion.”  Following someone who is attempting to leave an escalating situation is never helpful or productive.

STEP 5: As soon as she turns around, I am “in her face” again, yelling and screaming at how much I do for her and how little she appreciates all the efforts I make every day.  I start to swear and cuss at her, saying things like “I don’t need your bullshit,” “God damn it,” and “fuck you.”  I do this despite the fact that I know she really doesn’t like it when I swear.  She actually tells me that she hates it when I swear at her but I choose to think to myself that she’s just saying that to try to “provoke” me even more in this situation.

He not only follows her but then also “moves into her space,” another way to try to intimidate and punish her.  The escalating situation gets worse as he starts to swear, knowing this will bother and hurt her even more.  But he no longer cares about that at this point.  He wants to “drive his message home” no matter what the cost to the relationship.

STEP 6:  We continue to scream at each other and I continue to swear at her and put her down.  I am completely “pumped up” at this point.  She makes another effort to leave but I block the door by standing in front of her and yell at her that she’s “not going anywhere until we get this taken care of.”  This seems to be the “last straw” for her and she throws a dish towel that she is holding at my feet.
The escalation continues and his wife tries once again to leave the situation but he makes the choice to block her exit, ensuring that the conflict will continue unabated.  His wife, feeling more and more frustrated and trapped, “ups the ante” and throws the dish towel to the floor at his feet.


STEP 7:  I think to myself, “OK, if you want to start throwing things, I can really show you how to do that”  and I reach for a pan of vegetables she has been cooking on the stove.  I throw them into the sink.  It makes a loud noise and splatters all over the countertop.  I actually thought briefly about throwing them against the wall but I knew that would have created too big a mess.    My wife seems “shocked” that I have done this and finally stops yelling at me.

At this point, he gives himself permission to respond again “in kind” to what his wife has done by throwing the dish towel at him.  He may be saying to himself, “She crossed the line so now I can do it too.”   Thus, he decides to pick up and throw a pan of vegetables.  He is also very aware that throwing the vegetables against the wall will probably cause more damage than he wants to create (even in the midst of his rageful anger) so he throws it into the sink.  The continual process of escalation has gotten to a point where it appears that he has “gotten the last word” and “won” the argument when she stops “talking back” to him. 


STEP 8:  This seems to be the “last straw” for my wife, who “gives up” and then collapses and slides down to the floor and starts fo sob uncontrollably.  I begin to think she might be trying to manipulate me by starting to cry but then it actually dawns on me how I have been behaving and I feel really bad.  At that point, I finally decide to end this ”fiasco” and I leave the kitchen and go to sit in the living room to try to calm down.

In fact, it is at this point that it does appear that his wife has “given up” and the conflict has ended (and, in his mind, that it perhaps has actually been “resolved” for now and that she’s

finally gotten the message he was trying to send).  He has been able to escalate his behaviors in this exchange to the point where she has chosen not to continue (perhaps because she is fearful that it could go even farther to something physical directed at her).  He could have continued to yell, berate, and swear at her even now but he finally makes the “positive” decision at this point to disengage, partly in response to his concern about what he has been saying and doing but also partly because of a more conscious awareness of how he has been acting toward his wife, a woman that he thinks and says he loves.


This example is offered as a way to capture the essence of the highly choreographed “dance” that often occurs between two individuals when anger  becomes distorted and destructive.  Both individuals bring their brain chemistry, their childhood and life experiences, and the history of their interactions and their relationship with one another “to the table,” culminating in each person reacting to “dance steps” the other takes, often with little conscious awareness of what is really happening between them.  This sets up an escalating power struggle that all too often ends in emotional and, sometimes, even physical pain.

Use the above scenario as a means to try to think about how escalations have occurred and do occur in your life and about the choices that you and others make that either “fan the flames” between you or help to de-escalate a potentially difficult situation.  There are also more positive choices that this man could have used at a variety of points (calling when he knew he was going to be late, listening his his wife’s complaints about the boys, having more positive self-talk about what was happening, taking a respectful time-out at various times).  All of these could have potentially kept this from escalating to the point that it did.

Positive choices are more difficult to make the longer you are involved in the escalation as the “fight or flight” stress response is “kicking in” and your thinking is becoming more confused and negative.  But you have the ability to “put on the brakes” at any point because angry people are continually making clear (though not always “conscious”) choices in the escalation process.  Even in the midst of what feels like “uncontrollable” rage, decisions are being made.  This man, in fact, does this after his wife begins to cry.  The ultimate goal is to slow down and tune into yourself so that you become more aware of your “choice points” and make better and more effective decisions as a result.

© 1995 David J. Decker, MA, LP
Phone: 612-725-8402 or 651-646-4325 -






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