Yellow Alert and Red Alert

One of the most damaging things I’m seeing in relationships are fights about nothing.

Until a while ago I’d been thinking that most of these fights about nothing, were in fact fights about continuing to establish who was in charge of the relationship. The basic principle being that if you can win a bunch of little fights about things you don’t care about, you’re better staged to win the big fight about something you do care about. You can tell these fights are happening when the point of contention is usually about control. I.e. “Don’t tell me what to do”, “You aren’t in charge of me,” and so on. The fight isn’t really about the correct way to stack the dishwasher, it’s about control, the dishwasher is just a backdrop to the conflict where one person demands compliance from the other. I.e. “Stack it my way, not your way.”

But there’s also another way to have a fight about nothing.

It’s when someone is cranky.

When you’re cranky, even normal requests can become grating demands you no longer want to have to deal with. These can even be reasonable requests in a reasonable tone of voice and it would be very reasonable to agree to them…

…except right now you feel very unreasonable.

So you react badly to them.

Then when you react badly to someone making a reasonable request in a reasonable tone of voice, it’s quite reasonable of them to think you’re being unreasonable, rude and disrespectful. After all, you’re basically reacting exactly the same way you would if you were Fitness Testing them.

So they bump back on you.

Which pisses you off.

So then you Bump back on them.

Which pisses them off.

So they BUMP back on you.

Oh hell no. They did NOT just do that.

Dirty Bump Back right back at you screechtard.


And then as they say, it’s all on. All because someone was cranky.

One of the things I’ve always loved about Jennifer is that she doesn’t really PMS all that much. Even then, when she does PMS, she just announces it in about the same tone of voice one might announce that the mailman came. No anger vented at me, no grumpy pouting and too hard closing the cupboards in the kitchen as she makes dinner. Just a simple, “I’m cranky.”

Those two words are my cue to try and cut her workload down as much as possible. Send her out of the house to relax. Go to the library. Go sip some chai tea in Panera and eat a bagel or something. Whatever it is I don’t care, I just want to move the hand grenade to a safe location. She calms down, de-stresses and comes back. Usually to find basically everything done that needs to be done that evening.

It works because I know she’s not abusing my good nature because she doesn’t fake it. If she’s cranky, she’s genuinely not feeling herself. It also works because instead of things turning into a stroppy evening butting heads together, she takes space and comes back happier and we still usually manage a fun bedtime together. But if I missed her little tell of “I’m cranky”, that would be a bad thing.

My suggestion for clearly communicating you’re reaching the limit of demands on you before you start losing your temper, is a code phrase of “Yellow Alert”. I.e. Yellow Alert =” I’m about to start losing my shit, please give me some space and allow/help me recover and come out of this mood.”

Which brings us to “Red Alert” obviously. That’s when you really have lost your shit and it’s a very dark place to be in. It’s a roiling wave of emotion that overwhelms your ability to “just snap out of it”. It lasts until it’s over. For some people that’s an hour, for some it’s half a day, or a day, or three days, or even longer. When you’re in that place of defensive rage you can say and do some pretty nasty things about and to the people you actually love.

My strong advice is that when you’re in that dark place, simply say nothing other than to announce it and go seek whatever private space you can find, and/or do whatever you can do to get yourself out of it.

Seriously. Just say nothing. Nothing you say will be kind, constructive or helpful. Even worse, what you say might be the Dolorous Stroke that maims your marriage for years to come.

So if Red Alert is an emotional black hole that sucks you in, Yellow Alert is the warning that the event horizon of the Red Alert gravity well is approaching. Take action at Yellow Alert and the Red Alert never hits. It’s vastly easier to take space for an afternoon than walk on eggshells for a couple of days.

Clearly signaling to each other when you are in distress and giving each other space or comfort rather than descending into a fight about nothing is a vital relationship skill. One stupid fight about nothing because someone was tired can wipe out a couple of weeks of positive relationship gains. It’s something I think I’ve gone over with nearly all my couple coaching clients at some point.

Sometimes y’all just need a nap.

In full disclosure, I suffer far more from the risk of falling into the Red Alert realm than Jennifer does. She’s the calm stable one, I’m the passionate intense one. Maybe I’ll talk more about that sometime.


  1. pdwalker says

    Another home run.

    When I’m rapidly in the red zone, I’ll tell my missus that I “cannot talk/argue about this right now”. That doesn’t improve her mood, but it does give me the chance to tell myself (and her) that no further progress can be made at this moment. (things were much worse when I didn’t do this)

    Develop this Athol, and add it to ytour list of tools for couples.

  2. x says

    Such a “Dolorous Stroke” ended our marriage. We hung on for a few years longer than we might have thanks in part to MMSL, and that let us part peacefully, but yeah, it’s real, don’t go there.

  3. haniel says

    so next time my wife’s pmsing, can I be like, “Coolant leak! Bridge, we have a coolant leak in the engine core! I can’t shut it down. I estimate two minutes to a warp core breach!”

  4. Adam_S says

    Sounds to me like you could do with a bit of advice about all this stuff you’ve got going on with your business at the moment (just kidding, before I get banned :) ).

  5. BetaTester says

    As usual this hits home. Case point example is my experience last afternoon. However, what of the FO does not want to take a time out? Do you leave?

  6. Mister E says

    Communication between spouses is a very key ingredient. Early on in my marriage, my wife got mad because I didn’t know how she was feeling and I told her that I really didn’t know and she said that I was supposed to know. I told her that I expect the same from her and that quickly changed her tune about being a mind reader.

  7. says

    Uuuugh. I feel like I’ve been in a constant yellow alert for the last week. Good reminder that I need to just say that instead of acting pissy. I’ve definitely been better about that than I have historically, but it’s still a good reminder.

  8. David says

    And some people – for deeper, more persistent underlying reasons – are in the Red Alert zone for most of their life and there’s really no living with them.

  9. Dod says

    I have wondered about this issue for captains. I did not think we were allowed to be cranky or have moods. If a captain feels this way isn’t this inconsistent with being a captain or maintaining frame?

  10. Random Angeleno says

    Red alert land is a miserable place to be. That kind of stress is toxic when one spends enough time there. So thank you for the pointers about yellow alert and red alert. One more good thing to get out there for the event I find myself getting serious with someone again.

  11. says

    Fights about NOTHING
    That is deffinitelly the case in our scenario- the problem is I usually lose my temper when she acts cranky..
    I guess I must control myself.
    So its not DLV to recognize her exhaustion?
    I really dont want to do household chores – you said you needed to do them sometimes right?
    Is that necessarry?

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