Think back to the last big disagreement you had with your partner. Do you cringe when you remember saying something you wish you could take back? Do you feel a jolt of pain when you remember something your partner said, even though they didn’t really mean it? How long did it take you to repair the damage from that fight? Now, as you look back, is it really completely healed? Would your partner agree with you?
Handling a fight well is one of the hardest and also most important things you can do to build a happy relationship. Staying calm, rational, and empathetic in a stressful situation means working against your brain’s most basic survival instincts. In my next blog post, I’ll write about how to build your ability to remain curious and calm, but for now, I’d like to focus on what to do when you are NOT curious OR calm.
Imagine: the conversation is heating up. Your voice is rising. You’re turning red. You know you are right and your partner is wrong. Why can’t they see the obvious?
This behavior is perfectly normal. There’s nothing wrong with you. Your body is doing its job: protecting you. Your brain has a survival mechanism that is extremely sensitive. When it perceives a threat, all it can do is fight, fly, or freeze. This survival mechanism floods your body with stress chemicals that make it easier to fight off an attacker or run from a bear.
But there’s a trade-off: your brain can no longer use logic, do math, think through a problem, or even empathize. Nobody is kind or polite when triggered. This response is designed to save your life. But it might be a little over the top given that it’s your beloved partner you’re facing down, and your life is probably not in danger.
It’s almost impossible to fight this life-saving stress response once it starts. The best thing you can do is take a “time out” and return to the discussion once you’ve both calmed down.
Here are my 6 steps to “time out” effectively:
- Plan ahead. Have a conversation about timing out with your partner before your next fight. Agree on an easy-to-remember signal that will mean “I love you, and I’m calling time out so we can avoid doing damage.” Agree that whoever called time out will take responsibility for re-opening the conversation. This is not about avoidance, abandonment, or denial. Part of the deal is you come back and try again to resolve the issue.
- Watch for stress signals. Next time you and your partner come into conflict, pause. Breathe. See if you can stay curious. Slow way down. This is a lot easier if you start at the very first sign of upset. If you start to notice yourself thinking in terms of right/wrong, me versus you, or trying to convince your partner of your viewpoint, you will want to slow all the way down to a time out. The sooner you take a break, the fewer stress chemicals you have to metabolize before you get your logical, caring, curious brain back.
- Call “time out.” When you notice your stress signals, call “time out” and pause the conversation. Don’t say another word–you risk sucking both of you back into the fight. Remember, you will return to it later, when you both are able to access your logical brain rather than your self-protective brain. Protecting your relationship and one another is a better strategy than continuing when neither of your can access logic or empathy!
- Separate and soothe. You and your partner will need time to recover. Go to separate rooms, or leave the house. Some people can calm down together by silently sitting holding hands, but most need to separate. The important thing is that you intentionally try to become calm, rather than obsessively thinking about how wrong your partner is and how right you are. Choose a soothing activity that appeals to you. Time outs can last from a few minutes to a few days or even longer, depending on how good you are at calming yourself down, and how upset you got. You’ll know you’re there when you think loving thoughts, and can see that your partner might have a point, at least from their viewpoint.
- Return. Once both you and your partner have fully recovered, it’s time to make contact. The partner who called “time out” will be in charge of re-initiating contact with the other partner. You don’t want anyone to feel abandoned or cast aside, or to be left wondering if the issue will simply remain unresolved. Once you re-initiate contact, you don’t have to dive back into the thick of it right away. It can often be better to set up a time to return to the conversation, so that you can pick a good time, plan for it, and bring your best self to it.
- “Time out” again? When you return to the conversation, continue to pay attention to your body signals, breathe, go slow, and challenge yourself to remain curious and calm for a little longer. Still, you may find that you have to “time out” again. That’s not a failure, but rather a representation of your willingness to take loving care of your partner and yourself, no matter what.
This is part of a series about navigating conflict in relationships. Check out last week’s installment about how to stay steady during tough conversations.