One of the unique quirks of the human brain is its propensity to mirror the states of others. When we see an eight-week-old baby smile, we can’t help but smile. It just sort of happens.
But the opposite is also true. When we experience our partner’s irritation and anger, we get pissed. We feel an instant surge of irritation and anger. It just sort of happens.
Psychologists have a name for this phenomenon. They call it “complementary behavior”: the natural human tendency to mirror the emotions of those around us. When we’re in the presence of someone else’s happiness, we feel happy. When we’re in the presence of fear, we feel afraid. It’s a fancy way of saying that, when your partner comes at you with anger or irritation, you’re wired to respond in kind. It’s a behavioral pattern that can lead to endless arguments and conflict.
The question is, can we break the cycle of complementary behavior?
Two Radical Tools to End an Argument
1. Admit When You’re Wrong
Most fights involve a struggle for one thing: being right. The attachment to being right is so strong that it leads some people to end their relationships altogether. One problem with our attachment to being right is that it’s often impossible to judge who’s wrong and who’s right. The other problem is that being right comes at an outrageous cost: living in a state of continuous anger and resentment.
So, just for fun, during your next argument, see what happens when you open up to the possibility that you are wrong. Or, perhaps you want to take this one step further: Admit that you’re wrong.
2. Opt for Non-Complementary Behavior
Now for the advanced practice. The opposite of “complementary behavior” is what psychologists call “non-complementary behavior.” It’s the radical practice of doing the exact opposite of your partner during a conflict. This is the Gandhi-style move of responding to your partner’s searing resentment with love. It’s extreme. It’s counter to our most deeply wired instincts.
And yet this is the move that can dissolve an argument in 30 seconds or less. Because when you break the cycle of anger by responding with genuine love, kindness, and curiosity, you change the game. Your partner might initially wonder what the hell is going on. They might ask if you’re feeling OK. But, eventually, your non-complementary generosity and love will become contagious and the argument will dissolve.