Why Escalating Arguments Occur and How to Stop Them

"You’ve got a face like thunder. What’s the matter? If there’s something wrong just say so” "Have you looked at yourself in the mirror? You look just the same. It's impossible to even talk to you." And so starts an escalating argument.
Why Escalating Arguments Occur and How to Stop Them
Marcelo R. Ceberio

Written and verified by the psychologist Marcelo R. Ceberio.

Last update: 07 June, 2023

Escalating arguments can be extremely dangerous. But why? And, what does this term really consist of? Moreover, what can be done about them on a day-to-day basis? Is it possible to appease the heat of anger and avoid unpleasant responses or is this merely a utopian idea?

You can find out the answers to these questions here.

Complementarity makes balance possible

For relationships to work in a balanced way, it’s essential to establish a complementarity link. In other words, a relationship must be established in which one individual explains and the other listens. Alternatively, someone commands and another obeys, or someone questions and the other answers.

In these relationships, the dynamics aren’t fixed. For instance, the individual who asked can also answer and the one who answered can ask. Such fluctuations are part of healthy, functional communication.

The balance can also be observed in functions and roles. For example, a boss and an employee, a father and son, a director and assistant, and a teacher and student.

The power games referred to by the renowned Master-Slave dialectic developed by Hegel (both complement each other and both need each other) form the basis of many interactions. In fact, this structure appears in many different complementary pairs. For instance, submitter and subject, dominator and dominated, directive and submissive, and active and passive, among others.

However, such articulation doesn’t always occur in human relations. Sometimes, the interlocutors are symmetrized since both have equal power. For example, two people who want to command, want to be right or dispute the truth of the other’s point of view.

When this type of dialogue develops, the relationship becomes a struggle for power as one individual tries to dominate the other. It’s known as escalation. In this kind of interaction, the relational interplay means individuals place themselves on an equal footing. In other words, they become symmetrical in the relationship and the complementarity that makes equilibrium possible is annulled.

couple arguing

Escalation: a form of violence

Escalation is a form of violence. Each of the interlocutors wants to climb higher than their partner, but not fairly. In fact, the foundations of this kind of game lie in disqualification, envy, denigration, and one person’s attempt to destroy the other. Its effects are overwhelming. It’s like a growing snowball rolling down the hill as the competitors continue to exchange subtle and treacherous aggressions.

In this kind of game, both participants try to attack the Achilles heel of the other, to find their vulnerable sides and points of weakness. They annul the sharing typical of complementary relationships and adopt the competition typical of symmetrical relationships.

In fact, their interlocutor has become the enemy and the relationship is in dispute. Moreover, if they don’t exhibit a certain emotional intelligence, the argument ends up escalating. This risks both individuals ending up hanging from a chandelier just like in the memorable movie, The War of the Roses.

Winners and losers in the same argument

One of the mechanisms interlocutors use in escalations, to tip the balance in their favor, consists of seeking an alliance with a third party. Their aim is for them to either take their side or act as a judge.

When there’s a winner of the argument, naturally, there’s also a loser. In this case, what they lose lies in the personal field. Indeed, the loser is filled with anguish that sometimes translates into anger. They might unleash this immediately or wait until later if they desire revenge.

Rivalry and competition inevitably lead both parties to be submerged in a twisted sea of rationalizations, denials, and projections. These contaminate the relationship as one party ceases to be an extension, reflection, or target of the other. This forms one of the classic relationship stereotypes.

Escalation mechanisms

The above escalation mechanisms show the impossibility of coupling in a complementary way. For example, someone criticizes a colleague or simply does something that they don’t like. But, instead of finding a reflective attitude in their interlocutor, a war starts.

Then, they start to ignore each other’s viewpoints or completely change the topic of the conversation. Moreover, they’re more concerned with accusing each other than listening. In fact, as soon as one says something, the other is thinking about how to knock them down. For instance, When A criticizes B, B criticizes A. Hence, the necessary complementarity for a balanced relationship ceases to exist.

A prototypical escalation can be started by an irrelevant detail that one of them mentions to the other. However, instead of accepting it, they respond by pointing out the things they dislike in a critical tone. The other then replies with more criticisms. They respond by criticizing their negative traits. Later, in addition to attacking each other personally, they’ll continue with each other’s environments. Various protagonists will become the victims: parents, family in general, colleagues, friends, etc. All of a sudden, critical comments turn into insults.

The insults escalate and become verbal attacks that, if they continue to escalate, continue into verbal violence. In fact, there’s a risk of it ending in physical violence.

Couple arguing very loudly

Keys to finding complementarity

The question is: how can complementarity be achieved? What can you do to achieve balance and eliminate power struggles? The following keys may be useful:

  • Make changes. This doesn’t mean adopting the attitude of “I’ll change if you change”. That’ll merely continue the escalation and mean you’re tied to each other in the argument. In fact, each of you must make changes in an attempt to stop the rivalry. And, you can make changes without speculating or waiting for the other to modify their behavior first
  • Promote dialogue. Listening doesn’t mean agreeing and you don’t have to give an immediate response. In fact, just saying “I’m going to think about it”, in the face of what they’re saying, is a way of stopping the argument.
  • Control your anger. Escalations lead to anger, aggression, and violence. You have to learn to manage your anger and literally escape from the argument. For example, you might say “Please excuse me, I don’t feel well” and retire to the bathroom or your office or “Shall we go for a walk?”.
  • Postpone the discussion by asking if you can talk later. Or, you can tell them “Let’s not talk now, it’ll only end badly”. Alternatively, you could complain of a headache.
  • Understand that neither of you owns the truth. Indeed, there are multiple points of view about different things. Therefore, you must be respectful of what they tell you and they must show you the same courtesy.
  • Focus on the positive and deconstruct the escalation. Value your opinion and that of your interlocutor, avoiding critical and devaluing deployment.
  • Listen and ask about their argument. For example: “You say that I’m just like my mother…what do you mean? Because I don’t recognize it”. Again, this is a way of breaking the symmetry and seeking to complement your relationship.

Stop escalating arguments before they start

All of these communication techniques are aimed at deconstructing the snowball effect of escalating arguments. While they might appear to be simple formulas, in reality, they’re not, since escalations -when they’re systematized in relationships- are difficult to resolve. They generate serious resistance.

Finally, it’s important to be aware and watch out for the slightest indicator of verbal escalation. This means you’ll be able to stop it before it takes hold and prevent it from escalating into insults or even violence.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.