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Arguing With Your Partner? How To Take a Break That is Productive

I see so many couples on the right track. They seem to understand that sometimes during an argument it may be a good idea to take a break to avoid further escalation. This is a fine idea but sometimes I hear how it doesn’t go too well. People will tell me, “Well he just stops talking and walks away and this makes me so mad. Then he says he was taking a break,” or “I tell my wife I need a break but she continues to follow me around and continues talking.”

young couple in conflict, male with a tablet in hands

The other problem I hear is couples taking a break and then the issue they were fighting about gets shoved under the rug without ever getting any resolution. Although this may seem all right in the moment I’ve seen many problems arise down the road for people who have stored up years of resentment about issues that got ignored. I’d like to give a few pointers about how to take a break that helps avoid blow ups but also helps people return to the issues and get some true resolution.

The first important step for you and your loved one to take is to agree that, rather than having fights that end in screaming and cursing, you will move towards a more peaceful interaction with each other. This should be agreed to in a moment of calm not in the middle of a fight. Sit down and discuss what the terms are going to be with time outs. My layout would look like this:

#1 Agree That Either Person can call for a Time Out During Conflict

It’s important to honor this and sometimes this is hard for people because they don’t do the other time out steps that make this one tolerable. We’ll address that in a minute but right now we agree to honor the need for time out. This also means each person may have to become better aware of their own signals of escalating anger. Your body will give you the signals if you pay attention. Some examples are tightening of the jaw, clenching fists, face feeling flushed, or increased pulse. There is a wonderful device I sometimes use with couples that you can find at any drug store which you clip on your finger and it monitors your pulse. If you use this you can see your number rise or fall depending on how you are feeling. This is useful for our next step which is:

#2 Once Apart You Must Stay Apart for at Least 20 Minutes But Agree to a Time to Come Back and Try, Try Again

Once conflict has erupted it take at least 20 minutes to physically calm down. If you try to engage sooner you have a much higher chance of going from 0-100 very quickly. So stay away! But not for days or a week. You need to set a time to come back as soon as everyone has calmed down but no more than 12 hours if you can help it. The reason for this is that the partner who wants resolution is going to be very anxious until there is another conversation — don’t leave them hanging.  Say something explicit like, “Let’s come back after dinner and try to talk then,” or “I’m going to take a walk but I hope we can try again when I get back.” And what’s also important is how you handle the time apart.

#3 Once You Take A Break You Need to Do Self-Soothing to Calm Down

Taking a break will do no good if you go to another room and stew about all the reasons your partner is wrong and what are jerk they are. This is a time to do what helps you unwind-take a walk around the block, meditate, exercise, take a bath, watch some comedy or listen to some music — Bob Marley is always good for the soul. And then think of some calming things to say like, “We’re both just upset right now but when we calm down things will be better;” “We’ve had fights before and have always found a way to work things out;” “We’re taking a moment to breathe and that is much healthier for each of us and the relationship than lashing out;” or “I sure am angry but I love him and this is just a moment of upset.” It’s up to each of to manage our emotions and we can’t blame someone else for how we feel. We can feel upset and disappointed but we can and should be able to calm ourselves down after conflict.

#4 Calm? Now It’s Time to Reengage

Congratulations! You identified the need for a time out, you planned a time to talk again, you worked very hard to self-soothe and calmed yourself down and now it is time to try again. How do you not mess it up again? Very simple really. Slow the conversation way down and try to LUV — listen, understand and validate your partners feelings. Look at me being clever! But that is a good way to remember what you are trying to do here. You will find this often works like magic to get what you want which is a partner who is more calm, loving and able to empathize and see your point. But you must set your agenda aside for a minute first. Lots of people think they’re listening but when I have them really step through this in a session they see how they are, in fact, just waiting while their partner talks. Waiting quietly until you can spit out your point is not listening! I have written another blog post on this called When Helping Your Loved One Doesn’t Seem to Help at All that steps you through this in more detail. Or if you keep getting stuck come on in and see me and we will figure it out together.

Usually when people do these steps they’re able to work through conflict in a better way but sometimes patterns get ingrained and upsets run too deep. A therapist should be able to help you with that. I have seen couples who felt very cut off from each other and hopeless about their relationship be able to really connect by working on this issue. I wish you well in trying it in your own life.

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