Thursday, November 10, 2011


This week in Developmental Psychology class I presented a paper on dating violence in teenage relationships.  I'm not going to rehash the paper here, because it's boring and Google-vulnerable, but I wanted to share the most interesting conclusion I found.

How much conflict there is in a relationship, or the seriousness of the conflict issues, are not predictors of whether there will be violence.  The biggest predictor is the degree to which conflicts in the relationship escalate.

The studies I read looked at dating violence, which is not the same thing as dating abuse, although obviously there's lots of overlap.  Dating violence simply means that there's hitting/shoving/slapping; emotional abuse and controlling behavior aren't factored in.  Dating violence, unlike abuse, is most often bidirectional--roughly 70% of the time both partners had struck each other.  (I wish there was more distinction drawn between a relatively equal fight and "bidirectional" violence that's really self-defense, but that's a hard thing to determine in one case, let alone establish statistics on.)

The takehome is that we shouldn't be teaching teenagers (and grownups) to avoid conflict.  We should be teaching them "don't hit people," but that's hardly sufficient.  What we should really teach is de-escalation.

De-escalation means bringing someone down from an irrational, emotionally hyperaroused, screamy-hitty state, but it does not mean appeasement.  It can sometimes mean talking someone down by comforting and reassuring them, but that's far from the only method and it's only useful if they're just mildly agitated.  If they're screaming or threatening violence, saying "honey please honey it's okay" is usually not the best way to de-escalate them.  Setting firm limits is not just more empowering for the de-escalator; it's more effective.

A full method for de-escalation is really a whole class, but here's some pointers for dealing with someone who's upset to the point that they're losing control:

•De-escalate yourself first.  If you're on the verge of screaming at the upset person or slapping some sense into them, either take some deep breaths and get yourself back to a "level tone of voice, no swear words, muscles relaxed" level of arousal, or walk away.  You can't make someone stop fighting you if you're fighting them.

•Project calmness.  No anger, no fear.  Use a low, quiet, almost monotonous conversational tone.  Talk to them like you're explaining the tax code.  Have your hands in view and open.  Stay out of their personal space and don't stare them in the eyes.  (These last two--having your hands up and keeping a little distance--will also make it easier to protect yourself if they lash out physically.)

Respond to questions with answers ("where is my fucking wallet?") with matter-of-fact answers like they asked you a question about the tax code.  Don't respond to questions without answers ("why are you such a jerk?") at all.  If they're ranting, let them rant.  Imagine the words are just meaningless chunks of wordmeat and patiently wait for them to run out of wordmeat.

•Don't try to win the fight.  It doesn't matter if you were originally talking about "who gets the last cookie" or "were you cheating on me"; if the fight has gotten to the point of insults, ranting, or yelling, presenting evidence and arguments is not helpful.  Your only goal right now is to encourage them to calm down; or to physically leave the situation if they don't.

•Set limits in the form of "If you X, I will Y." Not "don't talk to me like that!" but "if you keep talking in that tone of voice, I will end this conversation."  Make it something you can and will do.  Don't use it as a threat or a punishment; just remind them where the lines of reasonable adult behavior are.  At the same time, offer them positive options: "If you have a seat and tell me what you need me to do, I will listen."

•If they start to calm down, they'll probably be exhausted and trying to save face; they probably won't be able to rationally discuss the issue right away.  Give them time and space.

•If they threaten to physically harm you, take it seriously.  If they physically harm you just a little bit--just a little frustrated shove or a quick grab but then they let go--take it super seriously.  Get out.  Just leave.  This is not a matter for talking any more.  This is a matter for not-dying.  (Even if it's not nearly that severe, it's still extremely important to set the limit that "anything physical immediately revokes all your privileges to interact with me.")  Walk away.

If they're not calm when you come back, leave again and give them more time.  If they don't get calm, if they try to punish you for walking away instead of saying "I've cooled down now," leave for good and bring a goonish friend or the cops with you when you pick up your stuff.  I'm uncomfortably aware that doing this is not always possible, but if it's an option for you, take it.

•If you have to do this a lot, get out of the relationship if at all possible.  Things are not okay.  "De-escalator" is a role you can play in an extraordinary crisis, not over the course of a relationship.  Without using the "abuse" word or not, if you're frequently getting in fights of escalating severity, it's not okay, it's probably not going to get better on its own, and it's not safe.  Relationships should be better than that.


  1. Reading this reminds me of living with my brother during his abusive period.

    The calm-down thing: I used to do that as a defense mechanism. Voice goes deeper, quiet but not whispery, clinical wording. It used to only make him angrier: he kept going until I cried, and only then calmed down, because then he could tell I was "genuine".

    Thank you for this. Will bear in mind that method of boundary-presenting for the next time I have to deal with him when he's being an abusive asshole.

    1. You are me currently. I'm too young to leave the house, and give him as much space as I would like to and I'm finding it incredibly difficult to keep myself calm when I'm angry at him and scared of him because of his past behaviour but I think this post and the self de-escalation one with help immensely.

  2. Great post and some very, very good advice! A lot of people don't know how to diffuse arguments in a relationship so this kind of information is extremely important.

    I also focus on the similar topic of domestic violence, which is my platform as Miss Indiana International as I actually just posted about in my latest entry.

  3. If you have to do this a lot, get out of the relationship if at all possible. Things are not okay. "De-escalator" is a role you can play in an extraordinary crisis, not over the course of a relationship. Without using the "abuse" word or not, if you're frequently getting in fights of escalating severity, it's not okay, it's probably not going to get better on its own, and it's not safe. Relationships should be better than that.

    I wish someone had emphasized that to me as soon as things started to go downhill in the relationship I had a few years ago that I still don't know whether or not to call abusive.

  4. I had to follow these steps at least once a month in the last relationship I was in. And after three days of screaming and insults and threats, I finally gave up and left. And I haven't been back since.

    I wish someone had given these pointers to me. Like the previous commenter, I needed that push in the right direction... but as things got worse, I knew it was abusive and I had to get out.

    Thanks, Holly.

  5. Unfortunately, this situation perfectly describes how my mom and I fight, and that's not a situation I can leave from, despite the fact that these fights happen about once a week. I guess I'm just biding my time until I can get away from her, but in the meantime it is very stressful for me.

  6. Excellent, well laid out points. I wish someone was teaching these to all the teens, and young adults, and college kids I know. Especially the part about if it's happening regularly, it is really, absolutely, time to go.

  7. Really good post, Holly. Would be great if we had comprehensive owners manuals for not only relationships, but for the details of brain chemistry, etc.

    As someone who was in an relationship with a diagnosed psychopath for a couple years, this advice is especially spot on.

  8. Anon @ 10:17

    My mother was verbally abusive. Nobody ever believed how bad it was, because she wasn't hitting me, and I couldn't get away until I was 18. It was so, so hard.

    My heart is with you and I hope you are able to leave soon. I wish you strength.

    Holly: Thank you for putting this out there. I wish someone could have told me these things when I needed them. One of the worst things about my own situation was that I had NO effective communication strategies to deal with it . . . I had no models for healthy communication, and all anyone ever told me was "ignore her" or "hurry up and wait." It took me many years to learn to communicate like a civilized human being. I am quite frankly surprised my marriage survived my lamentable ignorance.

  9. This saved my marriage. In the first years we fought frequently and neither one of us knew how to stop or back off. Now that we both are aware of how to do this and practice it when needed, it's a night and day difference. We haven't had a truly screaming crazy fight in years.

    That said, it's helped when we do argue. We keep ourselves from escalating.

  10. THIS. I wish more people differentiated deescalation, not caring, and ignoring the other side. Knowing how to fight back is good for when you have no other recourse, i.e. if you can't get away when a fight becomes physical, but teaching when to walk away and how to try and wind down an argument before it becomes a fight is way more important and useful.

  11. Much like Anonymous @ 10:17, my mother and I often come to this place. She never ever gets physical but the arguments come from the most unexpected places and neither of us can leave. She's in our place. Thankfully for all of us it's not a permanent situation.

    This is wonderful, thanks for it.

  12. Wow, this is fascinating.

    What were the studies you were talking about at the beginning of the post? Where did you find the information? This is really good stuff to know.

  13. This is actually incredibly helpful, I was in a situation a few weeks ago where I was unable to de-escalate things and it did...not turn out well for me, physically or emotionally. Tips to remember.

  14. Some excellent tips. You'd think they would teach conflict resolution in schools, as I can't think of a better skill for children to learn and perfect, but I suppose that would mean someone in the world would finally have to grow up... not it.

  15. (takes notes)

    Thank you, Holly! I'm really bad at arguments, mostly because my default reaction is "sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, please don't be mad, what do you want me to do, I will do anything, just don't be mad." It helps to have some guidelines for what's okay and not okay in arguing. :)

    Also, I want to second the bit about you not having to be in a relationship with someone who argues with you constantly. If someone is "sweet, except sometimes they get mad"... they are NOT SWEET.

  16. For me, the most difficult part is walking away. I'm perfect able to calm myself and then project calmness but sometimes the fight goes *so* far that it doesnt help. And then, I'm just incredible sad and it feels like if I go, something worst will happen. So I stay, until its over (by over I mean someone else coming and holding down the angrier part or if he walks away).

  17. This is a really helpful post! Just throwing in another tactic I've used before, when I had to talk to angry, panicky people at work on a regular basis. When someone is going off the rails, I'll try to break down what we're talking about into the smallest, easiest to answer questions I can. Not, "What did X do to make you mad?" but "when did you talk to X? Who else was there? Did X hit you?" etc. etc. Obviously you don't want to interrupt or dominate the storytelling. But in my experience it helps people wind back down, and actually feel more in control of the situation, if you provide a conversational structure for them. I don't have any formal training so if someone does feel free to tell me if this is actually horrible!

    Is that a diagram of a man riding on the handrail of an escalator? One with special handrail riding paddles?

  18. I wish I had come across this post months ago, when I was still in an my last relationship. My significant other had never been physical, but in hindsight, his behavior was textbook emotional abuse. This post rings so true for me because our arguments almost always stemmed from something banal like household chores, but almost always resulted in me getting bullied and badgered to the point of crying - the kind of crying where your body is hiccuping and dry-heaving. This happened at least every couple weeks. I tried reasonable methods to get him to calm down (responding to his rage calmly), and sometimes unreasonable methods (shouting back) because I'm also a human being with limits of my own.

    Before I got to your last point, I was going to say something like, these are all good methods indeed, however, the onus shouldn't always be on the same person to be the "calmer downer." I felt like it was always my responsibility to shoulder his rants and rage that came from his deep rooted insecurities. It was my job to buck up and take it from him. When I tried to leave the room, he followed me, guilting me into staying. What's funny is there was no "last straw" that made me decide to end the relationship - but every time we fought I felt like I was looking at the rest of my life. And the thought of that was far more painful than packing up my things and leaving.

    Anyway, this is my long-winded way of saying THANK YOU for this. I enjoy your blog immensely, every time I read a new post I find myself nodding my head in agreement because you hit the nail on the head every time. Keep up the great writing!

  19. @ Anon 10:17

    I know exactly how you feel. The whole time I was reading this I kept thinking "oh look... I know how to do this... because it's a basic survival technique for anyone living with my mother." Is there anyone you can talk to? Another family member, a school counselor, a teacher? I understand how bad it is, and I understand that you can't leave right now. I just want you to know that you aren't alone, that I've been through this, and that my life is a lot better now. My relationship with my mom is also a lot better. When she escalates things I *leave*. I'm old enough that I can just walk out the front door.

    Funny thing is, she doesn't escalate things the way she used to. When she realizes that her abuse will have consequences her ability to control herself practically doubles.

  20. It's great that you post things like this, Holly. I wish more people were aware of these kinds of patterns, and how to try to deal with them in a healthy way. I grew up with a father with borderline personality disorder, so there have been weird, horrible, bizarrely escalating fights in my life since I was very small, which always seemed to exist in some sort of bubble in the space-time continuum, because I was constantly being told that my memory of things was wrong, that I was making things up, that I'd said things that I didn't remember saying - and that I had a horrible temper and I was so mean and cruel to everyone.

    It took a LONG time to realize that I wasn't the one misremembering things, and I wasn't the one creating and escalating these situations. My father never hit me, and he saved the worst of the things he said for when no one else was around, so it didn't even occur to me to think that he was being abusive.

    But after I started getting information like this - about healthy versus unhealthy modes of conflict, patterns of abuse, and so forth - I started finding ways to protect myself (even if it meant de-escalating him by way of faking an emotional breakdown and making myself cry) and setting limits - and when he escalated horribly in response to reasonable, calm, limit-setting, I held my ground and then I left and broke off contact when it became necessary. Information like this helps people in situations like that, so I really appreciate your posting it. It's always sad/upsetting to read things like this, but valuable enough to be well worth it.

  21. Holly, great post as always. But, as with rape prevention (and maybe even more so), wouldn't it be better if the other person could de-escalate themselves?

    I'd really like to read a post on those techniques, if you ever come across them.

    This is something I struggle with myself, for a number of reasons, so, honestly, any and all help or advice would be much appreciated.

  22. Hello Holly - great post and really useful as the other people say.

    I've got some experience in abusive relationships and developed a similar approach on my own. I posted on it in August 2011 providing my insights into living for over 20 years with an abusive partner (after 16 with an abusive parent).

    What I would like to add is that abusive behaviour can occur for a lot of reasons and it may be helpful to work out why and address the reason. For example, my ex thought anger was an acceptable way to get what he wanted and his behaviour was exacerbated by a medical condition. A similar situation occured with my abusive parent - an early menopause saw the incidence and degree of abuse increase. Medical treatment helped the ex settle down, as did a change in power balance and not rewarding his behaviour.

    A small child cannot take control of parental abuse, but as adults we can often take control of our own lives. If I could live my life again I would maintain my independence and power base and set firm boundaries. For a woman this can mean having a career, own savings, car, supportive friends/family, life skills etc. Leaving one's home area and being totally dependent on someone else makes one vulnerable.

    I'd also like to see a post on self de-escalation. As the previous post said, it would be helpful for those people who have realised their behaviour is not acceptable, but have not worked out what to do to control it and also get what they want in life, i.e. they need to know peaceful means to achieve reasonable goals. My ex's behaviour was reinforced because he got what he wanted from anger, but of course he did not realise he won the battle but lost the war that way.

  23. Count this as another vote for a post on self de-escalation, if you've time!

    Thank you very much for sharing this information. It sort of struck home something important and specific about my own behavior I hadn't thought of. I've got a fairly decent relationship with my mother and family, if a bit distant. While I was still living under their roof, however, things always seemed tense and stiff in the manner of people who genuinely cared about one another but where slowly driving each other crazy. My solution was to shut down and slink off as soon as I could, or burst into dramatic tears until I *could* slink off. Those might be ways to end a fight or disagreement, but no way to actually *deal* with it.

    Even if fights remain verbal and frustrated and never break down into physical and violent, that still sets up patterns of behavior that make those fights easier and easier to get into over time. I think learning how to recognize the signs it was time to dial back and wind down instead of letting it cut off and simmer would have made things much smoother, to say the least.

    Thank you again for sharing and educating!


  24. This is a great post. Like a few other people here, one of my parents was pretty verbally abusive, and I learned these tactic by trial and error, as a survival strategy. As I was reading through this post, I was thinking, "oh, THATS what I've been doing all this time." I'll say this for that form of upbringing; its a useful set of tools to have in my conversational arsenal.

  25. I still have to do this with my ex (who I was strong enough to leave but who I couldn't stop being friends with) when she has bad mood swings. I succeed a lot of the time, but I have horrid panic attacks and can only keep it up by downing a few prozac.

  26. I too would like to ask for self de-escalation tips.

    This is a wonderful wonderful post and it makes excellent points. I've directed my partner to these points, but it's because of their usefulness to her that I'd love to find somewhere, anywhere, that has de-escalation tips for oneself.

    I have a diagnosed depression/anxiety disorder that, when really really triggered, likes to crank my fight/flight response up to eleven. I'm medicated, do my utmost to keep grounded and calm, and am wait listed for local long-term psychological assistance. So, progress is happening, and progress is great, but in the meantime, I'm still not at the really stable place I'd like to be.

    I'm bigger than my partner, stronger, and thanks to a condition she's had since birth, far more physically able to boot. It scares the ever-loving crap out of me that I'm capable of losing control of myself around her.

    I hate to think I could be "that guy" the one that people tell others to just get away from before it's too late. It ties me in knots that the potential is even a teeny bit there. So as much as I'm delighted to have techniques to point my partner towards and say "Hey honey! These would help me calm down probably if I tripped off to crazy-town!" I yearn for techniques I can use on myself to get out of that place before she even has to worry about it.

    Either way, loved the post. Always enjoy your words.

  27. What great thoughts. Thank you!

  28. A long time ago I was a nanny - I was instructed that if I felt frustrated rage coming on due to a screaming baby to make the baby safe by putting it in it's cot and walking out of the house until I cooled down - then going back to try again. It seemed like very good advice and could also be used for someone caring for an adult.

    If you use the walk away tactic, I'd also suggest talking to the other (adult) person in a quiet time so they understand why you need to get space suddenly. I know one lady who used to pursue her partner in quite an aggressive way when he tried to leave to avoid venting his anger on her. He would literally be forced to flee in his car and she'd follow him to start up the conflict where ever he took refuge. She perceived he was walking out on solving the issue and could not recognise that he had an anger issue that he needed to protect her from. I advised him to leave her as one day she would corner and goad him sufficiently to trigger an asault - he did leave with regret.

  29. Hi Holly!
    I've been blogstalking you for quite a while but this is the first time I've commented. This post definitely hit a nerve with me. My dad was definitely the type to let his anger escalate and when I was still under his roof I felt like it was my mom's responsibility to talk him down. Now that I'm older I realize that at certain times we have to de-escalate our partners, but most of the time it's ourselves we should be de-escalating. I know when my boyfriend and I have arguments we mutually decide to take an hour or so breather. This helps us both calm down so that we can talk about the problem and possible solutions, NOT yell and blame and accuse one another. I think the best solution to stop this type of behavior is to learn to "self soothe" like a toddler. I'll admit that when I get upset I tend to act like a toddler, and could definitely use some adult like reminders.

  30. This also works in a third-party kind of situation. Normally I'm good at de-escalation, but I got into a really bad argument some time ago - mutual, but definitely about to escalate into violence - and a friend of mine managed to de-escalate. I was too angry to do it myself, but I could co-operate with his de-escalation (especially since I was a)sober b)in some control of my responses) and we got the other guy, who was neither, calmed down.

  31. +1 for that future post of de-escalation. Getting things out of hand is the reaction I have learned and which is "normal" to me (sadly) (no physical stuff, just raising my voice and loosing all sense of nuance). I was often bullied as a girl because seeing me getting so worked up was funny for the bullies, and relative easily achievable. Now I do want to learn to control myself better, both for the sake of my discussion partners and my own sanity, but it is hard. I'm too easily triggered and go into that mental space of "weeee, I have to defend myself at any cost!!!!" .

    Now, I don't want you to solve all my problems in a post, this was just a bit of a motivational thingy.

  32. I mean, self de-escalation.

  33. NEVER, EVER CALL the Cops when it's an escalation between longtime friends, or people who are deeply involved in the "community" as you. The cops are not there to solve problems, they are there to arrest and gather information which will be used against the parties in whatever altercation. While an outburst might not be right, calling the police is tantamount to bringing the state into your private life and applying the imperfect law to an imperfect situation. I've seen a friend do 5 years hard time with a felony conviction over a minor disagreement because of the Police. The police should only be called as an absolute LAST resort and even then, I'd rather have community step in, than deal with the State.

  34. Get your politics out of my physical safety.

    "The community can handle this" is another way of saying "assault is legal here." Communities are great for handling disputes and scuffles--when genuine abuse or assault is going on, "keeping it in the community" quickly becomes less about self-policing and more about coverup.

    I agree: calling the cops because of a heated argument or a minor, fairly matched fight is a terrible idea. But you can't just take police involvement off the table like that. Sometimes it's necessary to keep people safe.

    You know and I know that the harshest consequence most informal communities can dole out is "we shun you for about a week, except for your buddies and some people who took your side and they don't shun you at all." Sometimes that's just not good enough.

    I'd rather have the police deal with an assault imperfectly than live with "he's assaulted several people so we're all going to give him the big-time stink-eye and meanwhile he's getting ready to assault someone else."

  35. i'd just like to add another vote for self-de-escalaltion, if you're able and willing to write that post [because it's your blog and your time]. but if you don't write it, do you know of any resources online? i've looked, and all i've found are paysites, ads for counseling centers, and... well, lets just say that Rule 34 really DOES apply to everything.

    and also like to second the question of the resources you used to write the paper you're sort of referencing for this. i'm not capable of mentoring teens anymore [you have to be able to get to them, and i can't] so i'm working with a few people who want to mentor. i'm mentoring mentors? anyway, it might be *really* helpful to share those resources with them. mentoring teens is awesome, probably the coolest "job" in the world [it's not a "job" if you love doing it. but i don't know a better word than "job" in this case.] but it's hard to do, and info is the best weapon in our arsenal.

  36. I know this is very late, but about walking away: What do I do when they're in my home?