It can happen in an instant: The transition from conversation to argument is often so quick and the reaction so intense that the parties can lose sight of what happened and how it happened.

And yet, conflict can and does erupt when differences between partners in a relationship are ignored, not accepted, or resolved without mutual respect. Under these circumstances, one or both partners may believe the difference or the conflict discredits personal integrity. This perception of a slur on integrity is frequently experienced as threatening, and the situation soon becomes personalized.

The Immediate Effect

The immediate result of personalizing is to experience acute discomfort from physical, cognitive, and emotional arousal. Heart rate, blood pressure, activity, and perspiration increase; breathing is faster and flatter and muscle tension heightens. Attention is focused solely on the immediate crisis, while thinking becomes disorganized. There is a flood of feelings for some; for others, emotions are shut down and not experienced at all.

Customary reactions include emotional distancing, a sense of being frozen in time, or impulsive activity. Attempts to continue arguing can lead to mutual raging or icy silence. In some cases, arguments lead to physical violence. In these situations, partners are not aware of options nor do they realize the slippery slope they are on that can lead to the deterioration of their relationship.

When Differences Are Personalized

  • Take some time out. Your arousal is a sign that you are not prepared to discuss your differences in a rational way. Find a way to stop the arguing until you both have calmed down. Agree on a signal beforehand or intervene by saying something like, “I won’t continue to talk to you under these circumstances.” Agree to talk again about the conflict at a specific time in the future and at a neutral location. This is particularly important if either of you have been drinking or using any mind-altering substances.
  • Find a quiet place, preferably another space, to focus on calming down. Some people find that physical activities like taking a walk, washing the dishes, exercising, mowing the lawn, or playing with the children distract them enough so that they regain composure.
  • Develop a self-soothing routine.
  • Recognize that personalizing occurs when we do not know how to handle a dilemma or challenge. Ordinarily, not knowing how to respond is unacceptable to us, so we see it as a threat to our integrity. Resolution of the situation begins with each party recognizing that the conflict is not caused by the disagreement, but by whatever meanings each partner attaches to the disagreement. By sharing their meanings, each one can begin to understand his or her separate contribution to the conflict.
  • Gain an understanding of your contribution to the conflict, so that you are prepared to enter into a problem-solving dialogue.

A warning: Some differences are an ongoing threat to the relationship and require one or both partners to change behavior before any effective work on the relationship can be accomplished. Physical and sexual abuse, substance dependence, lying, and severe mental illness are conditions that can make it dangerous, if not impossible, for the parties to enter into a dialogue aimed at improving their relationship. Such a dialogue presumes that both parties enter into it willingly and are ready to participate in the “work” of the relationship. To do so, it must be safe for each partner to be self-revealing and each must be able to be genuinely receptive to their partner’s self-revelations.

If it seems that preliminary work is needed to allow each partner to feel safe in working on the relationship, or if you are just not sure about your individual circumstances, it may be best to consult with a counselor for input on these matters.