The Psychology of Escalation
You know the drill: One of you brings up a delicate issue. You know it won’t be an easy conversation, but you don’t anticipate exactly how bad it’s going to get. What feels at first like simply a moment of tension becomes increasingly more intense, more contentious, and less kind. What seemed like a mere disagreement becomes about more than just the issue at stake. The tone of the conversation quickly progresses from tense to intensely negative; the volume of voices rises concurrently. The whole thing has blown way out of proportion. It has strained the relationship and it often leaves lasting damage (Smyth, 2012).
This is called the cycle of escalation. It’s how conversations aimed at solving a problem get way off track and end up making things worse (Smyth, 2012). It’s how people who once got along well end up bitter enemies, heels dug in and unable to see the humanity in one another. It’s obviously something you want to avoid in your relationship–especially when it comes to high-stakes discussions, like whether to get a prenuptial agreement, how to structure it, and what clauses to include.
Let’s take the example of Kaela and Tony, a newly-engaged couple planning for their future and talking about their prenup. Tony informs Kaela that he would like to include an infidelity clause. Kaela is bewildered and offended that he would suggest such a thing, and as he presses on despite Kaela’s disapproval, she begins to feel suspicious of his motives and see him as somewhat hostile. At one point, she pipes up “well at least I’m not the one who is still good friends with her ex!” to which Tony replies “It’s not my fault you’re so bad at leaving relationships on a good note that you weren’t even able to stay friends with your exes!”
This harsh little tidbit is not something Tony would normally voice–or even think. Escalation actually happens due in part to one of the trickiest self-fulfilling prophecies: If you believe someone is hostile, you will behave in ways that provoke hostility (Smyth, 2012). Let’s break it down:
Step 1. Kaela believed Tony to be hostile when he brought up the infidelity clause.
Step 2. Because she thought he was hostile, she escalated the situation by making the comment about Tony’s friendship with his ex.
Step 3. Kaela’s comment led Tony to strike back with a hostile comment of his own, even though he wasn’t coming from a place of hostility before.
If neither partner has the self-control and presence of mind to stop this cycle in its tracks, it will continue gaining steam and doing damage. Harsh words and lack of empathy will add new issues to the mix and pull the couple further and further away from any chance at resolving the issue that got them into this mess in the first place.
Mindfulness and Escalation
Enter mindfulness. You’ve heard of it and maybe even tried it. Maybe you’re an avid practitioner or maybe you think it’s wack. Mindfulness can be an extremely potent tool in stopping the cycle of conflict escalation. But before we get to that, here’s a list of silly common misconceptions you may have heard about mindfulness.
-Mindfulness is only for new-age hippies with their heads in the clouds
-Mindfulness is a Buddhist practice; practicing it makes you a Buddhist
-Mindfulness is all about positive thinking
-Mindfulness is about stopping yourself from thinking
None of these are true. Here are some cool things that are true instead:
-Mindfulness is, with almost no exceptions, helpful for everyone
-Modern-day mindfulness is inspired by, but distinct from, an ancient Buddhist practice. Many Christians use mindfulness to be better Christians, Jews use it to be better Jews, and atheists use it to enhance their lives and relationships
-Mindfulness has nothing to do with “positive vibes only” culture and actually calls us to be present with discomfort without turning away
-Mindfulness is not about trying to turn off your thoughts
Basically, mindfulness means paying attention, on purpose, non-judgmentally, in the present moment (Mindful Staff, 2017). Practiced routinely over time, it can have a measurable positive effect on our stress levels, ability to handle difficult situations, and overall mental, physical and emotional health. By now, hundreds of studies are conducted every year that all point to the same conclusion: Mindfulness is really, really healthy on a variety of levels.
Examples of mindfulness activities might be:
-Lying down and slowly scanning the body, paying attention to sensations without judging or trying to change them
-Watching the breath as it goes in and out of the nose
-Watching thoughts come and go without getting carried away by them
-Doing yoga or other movement exercises while staying present with the feelings that arise
All of this sounds simple, but the mind will wander a lot. Mindfulness means bringing yourself back to present moment experience again and again when your mind drifts, without judging yourself for drifting. Through regular mindful observation of their minds and bodies, avid practitioners of mindfulness gradually reduce stress while increasing their tolerance to it and improving their reactions to it. (If you’re interested in trying out some mindfulness exercises, check out Palouse Mindfulness for a free self-guided eight-week course full of different activities.)
So, it’s no surprise that a skilled mindfulness practitioner has the superhuman ability of being able to throw a wrench right into the cycle of escalation.
How? By intentionally tuning into present moment experience, you create space between yourself and the experience and can disengage from autopilot, giving you the ability to consciously decide how to react (Smyth, 2012). In a conflict situation, this means recognizing your emotional state, making discerning judgments about how to react instead of reacting from pure emotion, and deciding when tensions are high enough that it’s more productive to take a break than continue talking.
Let’s go back to our friends Kaela and Tony. When we left them, they’d escalated to hostile comments. It has now gotten so far that Kaela has actually threatened to rethink the entire relationship if Tony doesn’t relinquish his desire for an infidelity clause. Tony will probably be tempted to retaliate with a counter-threat. However, Tony has been practicing daily mindfulness exercises, and luckily he recalls his practice at this critical moment.
Mindfulness helps him insert a “wedge of awareness” (Riskin, 2006, p. 242) into his reactions. He is able to mentally step back and examine the situation. After a moment, he remembers his ultimate goal of creating a future with Kaela and decides that retaliation would not lead to understanding or healing. He pauses and says “Kaela, I love you. I’m not doing this because I don’t trust you. I’m doing it to cover all our bases. Let’s take a few minutes to calm down, then hug and try this again, ok?” Kaela calms down and agrees. Tony’s ability to be mindful in a critical moment has helped repair damage and prevented further escalation.
Another danger of escalation is that our negative emotions lead us to tell ourselves stories about what is happening that might not be completely true to reality (Smyth, 2012). Kaela, for example, tells herself an untrue story about Tony not respecting her and not trusting her commitment to their relationship, and it is this story that leads her to issue such a grave threat.
Let’s back up to before Kaela threatened to rethink the relationship itself, and imagine an alternative scenario. If Kaela mindfully practices nonjudgmental awareness of her negative emotions, she can abort the process of the negative emotion crystallizing into an untrue and unproductive story she tells herself.
Instead, she becomes aware of the emotions she is feeling (shock and upset), notices the thoughts it brings up (he doesn’t trust me), and is present with the bodily sensations it produces (an unpleasant tension in her core). By doing so, she gains psychological distance from the conflict and is less likely to act out her feeling inappropriately (Smyth, 2012) by threatening Tony, putting their relationship at stake, and continuing the cycle of escalation. After her moment of mindfulness, Kaela softens a little and mentally acknowledges that the story she’s telling herself might not be true. She is able to loosen her grip on the story a little bit and let go, at least for the moment, of her impulse to call the relationship into question. Crisis averted.
Even more importantly, Kaela’s awareness of her feelings will support her capacity to
hear Tony with empathy (Sofer, 2018). Habitual knee-jerk reactions to disagreement that make us tense up and prepare to fight block our capacity for empathy, particularly when escalation is involved (Smyth, 2012). Careful, mindful reflection on feelings can do the opposite.
Just five minutes of mindfulness practice per day is enough to reduce stress and produce plenty of other benefits. Incorporating mindfulness practices into your life can radically improve your relationships and ready you to face disagreements as a couple in a constructive way.
As for Kaela and Tony? When they brought their mindfulness practice into their interaction, they were able to stop the conflict from escalating further and continue talking calmly and kindly. Kaela was able to hear and understand that her fears were unfounded. Tony was able to empathize with Kaela’s initial reaction and reassure her that he trusted and respected her. At the end of the discussion, they were on the same page about their prenup and both felt secure about the relationship. They soon moved on to looking at wedding venues.
Mindful Staff. 2017. Jon Kabat-Zinn: Defining Mindfulness. Retrieved from: https://www.mindful.org/jon-kabat-zinn-defining-mindfulness/
Palouse Mindfulness (2021). Online Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Retrieved from: www.palousemindfulness.com
Riskin, L. 2006. Knowing yourself: Mindfulness. In The Negotiator’s Fieldbook, edited by A. Schneider and C. Honeyman. Washington, DC: American Bar Association.
Smyth, L. 2012. Escalation and Mindfulness. Negotiation Journal, (28), 45-72
Sofer, O. J. 2008. Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication. Boulder, CO: Shambhala
Young, Karen. 2015. Mindfulness: What, how, and the difference 5 minutes a day makes. (2015). Retrieved from: https://www.heysigmund.com/mindfulness-what-how-why/