Relationship arguments can escalate quickly. When we are attacking each other, friendliness goes out the window. Since we are feeling threatened, conflict can reach a point of verbal or physical abuse.
One of the best ways to prevent your fights from escalating out of control is to take an effective time-out. The authors of Couple Skills argue that a well-timed break is “perhaps the single most useful strategy for stopping violence and the battering syndrome.”
A well-timed break must happen before partners start to feel overwhelmed. When either of you are emotionally flooded, the loving part of your brain shuts off and the fighting part takes over.
Here’s a conflict cycle that got out of hand quickly:
Blake: I don’t like being called names, Devin.
Devin: I don’t call you names, Blake.
Blake: You always call me names like jerk or bully, but you’re the bully.
Devin: Please don’t say that. It’s clear that you call me names, though.
Blake: This has been happening our entire relationship. You tell me you’re going to change, but you don’t. I want closeness and friendliness, but it’s never there.
Devin (walking away): This is ridiculous. I’m out of here.
Blake (chasing after him): We’re not done with this conversation. You don’t get to just walk out. Get back here and talk with me like a man.
The cycle of attack and counterattack makes a relationship unsafe for conversation. Devin’s walking away is a form of stonewalling. While Blake feels Devin is unaffected, this is far from the truth. Dr. Gottman argues that “people stonewall as a protection against feeling psychologically and physically overwhelmed, a sensation we call flooding.”
Flooding happens when your partner’s harsh words cut you so deeply that you go into protective mode. It’s clear that Blake and Devin should not be talking to each other in the way that they are.
Underneath this toxic fight are deep vulnerabilities. Blake is scared that Devin will leave. Devin, on the other hand, fears being inadequate for Blake. He tends to run away when fearing he isn’t good enough for Blake. The more these vulnerabilities are triggered and not cared for, the less love each partner will feel.
It is impossible for someone to be emotionally open with their partner under conditions of fear, disapproval, or threats of abandonment. It’s only through mature dialogue that includes acceptance, respect, and safety will anyone ever be emotionally open enough to actually resolve conflicts.
I don’t know about you, but my education never taught me how to fight fair with someone I was close with. Nor did I ever learn how to take a break from conflict. I used to be the Blake in the relationship; I was always chasing after my partner, demanding them to deal with the issue. When I fought like this, nothing ever got resolved.
This is why it’s so important for couples to learn how to effectively take breaks when they are emotionally flooded. Then they can return to the conversation calmer and actually resolve the issue.
Step 1: Agree on a “We Need a Break” Signal
This can be either verbal or nonverbal.
Verbal examples include: “Time-out,” “Let’s take a break,” “I’m overwhelmed. Break!”
Make sure your verbal agreement is short and quick. It should never be said in an attacking voice and should suggest that the break is best for both partners.
Other couples like to use nonverbal signals such as making a T with their hands, putting up a peace sign with their fingers, or showing their palms close to their chest as a signal that says “we need a break.”
Talk with your partner and decide what works best for both of you.
Step 2: Agree on the cues of nasty fighting
When you can calmly discuss your fighting style, reflect on what tends to happen when it gets out of hand. For some couples, it could be increasing anger. For most couples, it can be name-calling, harsh “you” statements, or raised voices.
The failure of a marriage, according to Dr. Gottman, is determined by a couple’s habitual way of starting conflict on a negative note. This ultimately leads to emotional flooding.
The first four signs a relationship is doomed, according to Dr. Gottman’s research are:
- A harsh startup – starting a conversation with a negative comment that attacks your partner or blames them.
- Presence of the Four Horsemen – criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
- Emotional flooding
- Signs of emotional flooding in the body – Dr. Gottman discovered that signs of someone feeling emotionally threatened include a heart beating more than 100 beats per minute, the body flooding with adrenaline to activate fight or flee response, and higher blood pressure.
Continual experiences of flooding guides a couple to ending a marriage for two reasons, according to Dr. Gottman:
- One partner is extremely distressed when talking with their partner.
- Being flooded makes it impossible to have a successful conflict conversation that resolves the problem. Since the problems don’t get resolved, the little things become big things.
Dr. Siegel says that when we are emotionally flooded, our brains “flip their lid” and we lose our neocortex; the social part of our brain. This system of our brain is responsible for creative problem solving, humor, and the ability to view things from another perspective.
When this system goes offline, you are left with the most primal part of the human mind and your responses are limited to anything that demonstrates fighting (harsh words) or fleeing (stonewalling and withdrawing). Any possibility of resolving the problem goes out the window.
This is why it’s essential you catch the cues before it’s too late. An effective break happens the moment either partner becomes flooded.
Anything that makes you feel defensive is a cue that flooding is just around the corner.
Step 3: Meaning of the Signal
For people who are avoidant, a time-out is great because they are skilled at calming themselves down.
For the needy partner, a break can be interrupted as a sign that their partner doesn’t care about them.
This is why it’s necessary to discuss what a “break” means to both of you. When I work with couples, I recommend interpreting the break as a sign that the relationship really matters. That one or both partners are triggered and that the relationship is okay.
The way you think about the signal determines its effectiveness, and whether you’ll respond to it as agreed or ignore it.
Step 4: Agreements of an Effective Time-Out
Couples need to create a pact around the break. These agreements honor your relationship and each other. Since you agree, it is your responsibility to uphold your end. Just as your partner is responsible for upholding their agreements, not you.
Here are some powerful agreements.
Stop Immediately. When a time-out is called I agree to return the signal or key phrase and stop all conversation. There will be no last words, explanations, or a final comment.
Don’t think to yourself, “We can take a time-out after I make my point,” because then a break will never happen.
Take a Break from Each Other for No Less than 20 Minutes. I agree to leave the room and/or the house when a timeout is called. If we are in a situation were we can’t separate, such as a car ride, we will agree to stop talking for at least 20 minutes.
Many people think they just need a few minutes to calm down. Dr. Gottman’s research shows that it takes most people at least 20 minutes to regulate their emotions and return to their normal self.
And most of us, myself included, are bad judges of this. When coming back into conflict conversations, Dr. Gottman discovered that people who believed they were calm were still operating at 10% above their normal heart rate. So when they started the conversation, they were at risk of being flooded again.
Come Back When the Time is Up. Breaks can be up to an hour or two if needed. Any longer and your partner may get worried or feel abandoned.
Another thing I have couples do is set a check-in time via text around the 30-minute mark of the break (if the time-out goes that long). This check-in is simple, comforting, and can be used to ask for more time or ask if your partner is ready. A good example text might look like, “I’m glad we’re taking a break. I’m ready to meet again, are you?” or “I’m still upset and I want to work through this. I’ll be home in 30 more minutes. K?”
These reassuring texts are important because they check-in with your partner and remind them that they matter.
Other couples agree ahead of time that they’ll only take an hour-long break. Play around what works best for your relationship. Here is the agreement:
We agree to take a ___ minute break from each other and return when the time is up. If needed I will request additional time to calm down. If my partner requests additional time to calm down that is less than 1 hour, I agree to let them take that time.
Avoid Substances. Alcohol and drugs compound negative emotions and thoughts, thus making the break useless.
I agree to avoid substances that may alter my emotions or thoughts during our time-out period.
Step 5: Structure Your Personal Break
How you think and what you do during your break determines your ability to calm down.
People often think about all the ways they are going to get back at their partner when the time-out is done. Typical thoughts include what Dr. Gottman calls distress-maintaining thoughts, such as righteous indignation (“I’m going to hurt my partner as bad as he hurt me”) and innocent victimization (“I can’t forgive the hurt. It was far too painful. I’ll never forget it.”)
These thoughts keep you upset. For a break to be effective, you need to make an intentional effort to replace these difficult thoughts with relationship-enhancing thoughts that will help you calm down.
- “It’s okay. I’m upset. Take some big breaths.”
- “This isn’t personal. We can work through this together.”
- “I’m hurt and I love my partner. There’s something I’m not understanding right now and we will figure it out.”
These thoughts help relax the body and calm you down.
It’s also important to learn how to breathe deeply and relax your body. When flooded, Dr. Gottman noticed that people hold their breath and have shallow breaths. This maintains the sense of threat your body feels. To counter this, close your eyes and take some deep breaths. This will regulate your nervous system and signal that you’re okay, thus allowing the loving part of your brain, the neocortex, to come back online.
For some people, meditating or relaxation exercises are tough. That’s natural. What matters is finding something that both calms you down and distracts you from distress-maintaining thoughts. You can also listen to music, take a walk around the block, or read a magazine. Some people will go for a run.
Make a list of five calming activities you can do during your break. For more tips on how to calm down, download the Time-out Pact by subscribing below.
Step 6: Start By Reconnecting
When you return from your break, do not jump back into the conflict. Instead, focus on connecting with each other emotionally. You can do this by naming 3-5 things you appreciate about each other, or by hugging each other for a minute or two.
By reconnecting, you’re signaling to your brain that your partner is someone you can trust and that it doesn’t have to step in to protect you by attacking your partner.
Overpractice the Time-out
You may have downloaded the Time-out Pact and made new agreements that make you feel like things will go better next time. Unfortunately, there’s more work that needs to be done. The worst thing you can do is to read this and never practice a time-out.
Blake and Devin filled out the Time-out Pact but never actually practiced the time-out. When they had their next nasty conflict, they completely ignored the time-out signal and continued to fight in the same way. This kept them stuck in an unsafe cycle of criticism-counterattack-stonewall.
During our next call, they disclosed that they thought about the time-out but were so upset that things “just had to come out.” Unfortunately, the things that “had to come out” harmed their bond instead of strengthening it.
It’s not enough just to be aware of the benefits of an effective timeout. This skill has to be practiced so often that in the heat of a nasty fight it becomes your automatic response.
Practice the time-out during your weekly meeting, even when it is not needed. Then practice it when one of you is slightly agitated. The difference is you can spend less time cooling down during the practice sessions.
Practice this at least five times and play around with the signals, and ways to reconnect with each other when you return. Find out what works best for you.
Blake and Devin agreed to practice time-outs, and they did so four times before our session a week later. They even had a fight a few hours before our session and successfully used it.
It’s been three months since they’ve had to take a time-out in conflict. One of the paradoxes of time-outs is the more you use them, the less you need them. This is because the security of knowing how to end fights and how to calm yourself down makes it much easier to stay present and fight better, together.
Each time you practice a time-out, even when you don’t feel like it, the more you’ll use it when you need it most.
P.S. Time-outs are not ways to end conflict conversations. If a time-out is used to avoid a topic and you avoid discussing it after the break, the time-out will be useless next time. Your partner needs to trust that things won’t get swept under the rug and that their feelings and needs matter to you.
Do your best to listen non-defensively, and use a time-out when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Use it when you notice your partner has raised their voice, is calling you names, and making mean “you” statements. The goal of a time-out is not to stop a conflict, it’s to delay it, so both partners can calm down enough to have a mature conversation about the issue.
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