Conflict and disagreements are inevitable occurrences in intimate relationships. While they are often viewed as problematic, it is important to note that they can actually serve as important fodder for growth and development for both partners individually and for the relationship as a whole. This only happens, however, when undertones of love and respect remain intact throughout the encounter.
The not-so-great news is that engaging with your partner in a respectful manner that does not devolve into a character attack is not something that is explicitly and formally taught to children or adults. This is counterintuitive and a major oversight in American culture since: a) most people enter at least one romantic relationship throughout their lifetime, and b) every relationship has periods of conflict. As a result, many people feel frustrated, discouraged, and beleaguered during and after an argument with their partner. And more often than not, both partners leave the situation feeling unheard and misunderstood and with a sense that the issues are left unresolved.
But do not lose hope—there is good news, too! If both partners recognize this as an area for improvement and commit to doing the work in couples therapy, they can learn to engage differently with each other. This includes gaining the tools to effectively navigate disagreements when they arise.
One of the skills that I teach the vast majority of my couples is the subtle art of not losing your cool during arguments. This is most effectively accomplished by employing the “time-out” tactic. The time out is an essential skill to master because it allows us to put a halt to the physiological process that occurs during arguments. When in a heated discussion with a partner, the brain begins to short-circuit and go into “fight-or-flight” mode, triggering a self-protective state that oftentimes includes little to no regard for the other person’s feelings or statements. Being in this place makes it literally impossible to have a productive and thoughtful conversation.
Time outs allow you to circumvent the fight or flight process by allowing the space to identify your emotions and recognize when you are feeling overwhelmed, regulate those emotions, and interrupt negative interaction patterns that might include criticizing, yelling, accusing, interrupting, belittling, and ignoring. By doing so, both partners are then able to come together to think of a healthy and productive way to find closure and move forward together.
So how do you practice the art of not losing your cool? See the steps and key tips below:
- Learn to recognize when you need to take a time out. Pay attention to what is happening for you physically, mentally, and emotionally. Is your heart racing? Is blood rushing to your face? Are you able to actively listen to what your partner is saying? Are your fists clenched? Are you breathing quickly? Are you beginning to emotionally or physically detach yourself from the conversation? These are all signs that you’re getting overwhelmed and need to take a break to practice self-regulation.
- Explicitly state that you need to take a time out. You can say something along the lines of, “I’m feeling very overwhelmed/frustrated/angry right now and am not thinking clearly. I would like to take a time out.” If you sense that both of you are feeling overwhelmed, you can say something like, “It seems like both of us are feeling very upset right now and I want to make sure that we don’t say or do something that we’ll regret. Why don’t we take a time out?” Important note: do not tell your partner, “You need a time out!” since this may come across as accusatory or demeaning and might exacerbate the situation.
- Collaboratively decide upon a time and location that works best for both of you. I generally recommend not waiting longer than 2 – 3 hours and to avoid letting it linger overnight. Choose the amount of time in which you both feel that you could realistically gather your thoughts and calm down.
- Leave the space and practice some self-soothing. Engage in activities that relax you and provide the space to think clearly. This might be going for a walk, jog, or bike ride, writing in a journal, taking a bubble bath, or washing the dishes. Use this time to think about what thoughts and emotions you would like to share with your partner when you reconvene. Also try to think about your partner’s point of view and what they might have been trying to communicate.
- Meet with your partner at the predetermined time and place and share your thoughts, emotions, and concerns, this time from a much calmer place. Take turns listening attentively to each other and using “I-statements” when it is your turn to speak. Then, based on what you two express, collaboratively decide how to move forward. If things get heated again, return to step one.
This is not an easy process and it does not happen overnight. But with commitment, dedication, and much practice, you, too, can master the subtle art of not losing your cool.
Has this technique worked for you? Let me know—I’d love to hear from you!
Shy Porter, MS, LCMFT provides couple, family, and individual therapy in our downtown Bethesda, MD office. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation with Shy.