This month Douglas Holwerda, American trained and licensed mental health counsellor, talks about learning how to diffuse heat and emotion in the middle of a conflict


Dear Douglas,


Lately, my wife of four years has become unbearably aggressive in the way that she is talking to me. We have an on-going disagreement about living in Vietnam that we can’t come to terms with. She is blaming me for a decision we both made. In any case, we have no option but to live with it for at least a year. Once she starts screaming, calling me names and saying things that are meant to hurt me, I don’t know what to do. Arguing back doesn’t work… we end up on the verge of knocking each other out. Leaving the house doesn’t work. It has only proved to make her madder. I never imagined we would be so unable to solve our problems together. Help! She is out of control.


— No End in Sight


No End,


The readers should be informed that this letter has identified a crisis… a situation that calls for immediate attention and cannot wait for the next issue of Word to come out. No End was contacted and was able to find a therapist who facilitated the communication that helped him and his wife move out of the risk of danger, physical and emotional, that intense emotions can create.


Conflict and disagreement are a normal and predictable part of any relationship, particularly within a marriage or with a partner with whom life decisions are being made. Often we discover ourselves in these conflicts before we realise the power and intensity they have and the difficulty that comes from trying to resolve them. There is a real danger that people are hurt or that the damage done is irreparable.


My advice is to consider some ground rules that provides a structure that increases the likeliness of getting to resolutions that are amicable. A lot of it has to do with knowing and managing our emotions. It is helpful to learn the difference between responding and reacting to a situation or conflict.


Responding is the ability to consider how we feel and what we think, while making a choice that is consistent with our values, or the way we want to be in the world. If our emotions are intense, in order to respond we need to pause long enough to calm ourselves and to see what the factors are that are causing that intensity. Often it is more than the given situation. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for many of us to react, which is to allow the intensity of our emotions to determine the behaviour we choose. Often when one acts out of that intensity they find themselves regretting their actions later, when they see it from a less emotional perspective.


Many couples learn that when emotions start to escalate, they are better off calling “time out” and stepping away from the conflict to regain composure so they can revisit the issues from a place of relative calm. They learn that very few solutions occur when intense anger, frustration, or fear are in play. The key is not to escape the issue, but rather to see it from the broadest perspective — that of being calm. While anger can often be justifiable, it can never be used as a license for abusive or damaging behaviour.


I am hopeful and confident that No End In Sight has found an end — even if it is to agree to disagree — with the help of some facilitation. It is a role that therapy can play for couples or families in trouble.


Be well,


— Douglas


Do you have a question you would like Douglas’s help with? You can email him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Personal details will not be printed

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Douglas Holwerda

Douglas is an American trained psychotherapist, writer of the Dear Abby-esque monthly column in the Word, "Dear Douglas". He holds to the notion that the living of life is a creative endeavour... an eternal adventure without promises. And that we are both shaped by the journey and the shapers of what is possible. Our greatest hope is to find love and connection along the way. Live it all.

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