“Don’t worry – Every couple fights.” True, however, what we don’t realize is that not every couple fights the same way. According to Dr. John Gottman, relationship researcher, and couples therapist, all couples have conflicts. The difference between happy couples and unhappy couples is how conflict is handled. Properly handling conflict begins with cultivating a culture of love and admiration in your relationship. Reminding ourselves of the abundance of positive qualities present in our partners is the first step in managing conflict. We need to remember that one of the foundational aspects of a happy couple’s relationship is knowing how and when to call for a timeout.
Most of us have heard the old saying about how the truth comes out in anger. What most of us don’t realize is the reason why this is a false belief. Neuroscience proves intense conflicts can send our brains into a “fight, fight or freeze” state in which the only thing our brains are doing is keeping us alive. We stop using the executive control center of the brain and all our awareness shifts to the primitive, survive at all costs, part of our brain. When our survival brain is in control emotionally crushing words follow. How many times have we each said something in anger that we deeply regret? How many of us have seen the devastating look on a loved one’s face? How many times have we been the devastated ones? Taking a time-out amid a heated argument demonstrates that you acknowledge the potentially heartbreaking effect your angry words can have on your partner.
One of the most effective and compassionate tools couples can use in times of conflict is the “Time-Out.” Recognizing arguments can become overheated and having a plan ahead of time helps stop damaging fights before they get started. Remember, you are not a parent, you are a partner. Call the time-out for yourself. Do Not Attempt to put your partner in time-out!
Rules for Calling a Time-Out
Step 1: Recognize your need for a time-out and remember this is about you requesting a break from the encounter. It is not about imposing a time-out on your partner.
Step 2: Request a Time-out. Tell your partner that you need a break and do not just walk away. The goal in requesting a time-out is preserving connection and not competing to see who can make the other suffer more. Try phrases like “I am too angry to talk and I need time to cool down;” “I am so upset right now I cannot even respond;” or simply “I need to take a time-out.”
Step 3: Use the time-out to calm yourself down. Take a walk, practice deep breathing, or just rest. Do not use the time to plan how you will win the fight.
Step 4: Remember What’s Important. Recall what led to this escalation. What emotions or physical sensations got stirred up in you? Only after you have calmed down, identify what happened and what was challenging to discuss. Meditate, pray, or reflect on what you’d like your partner to understand about your perspective.
Step 5: Resume the Conversation. Resuming the conversation begins the repair process. The goal is to have a frame of mind to listen to and understand your partner’s perspective. When both partners enter the conversation with openness and acceptance working through hardships in the relationship is not only possible it can bring you closer.
All couples fight. Remember happy couples can maintain connection in conflict. Another way to help avoid wounding and disconnection conflicts are to be aware of what John Gottman calls The Four Horsemen of Relationship apocalypse. My next blog will discuss what they are and what couples can do to avoid them and repair relationships when they do show up.