Love Smarter by Learning When to Take a Break

By Kerry Lusignan, MA, LMHC

Being able to shift gears in the heat of an argument and take a break is one of the most crucial relationship skills. It’s also one of the most difficult.

Breaks give you time to calm down, deepen your perspective, and have a successful “do-over” with your partner. In order to be successful, however, it helps to follow a few basic practices.

Unfortunately, when conflicts arise, many of us are likely to do more harm than good. We shut down conversations prematurely or push our partner past their threshold of tolerance, and when this happens, both partners can get locked in a stalemate of stonewalling.

We compound the problem by misusing the time apart. Dr. John Gottman, renowned for his research on marital stability and divorce prediction, describes what he calls “self-righteous indignation,” which includes obsessing over wrongs we believe our partner has committed. This can happen silently as we ruminate internally, or it can happen vocally when we “vent” to sympathetic others.

When you’re feeling self-righteous indignation, you tend to see your partner as the problem. It morphs the potential healing power of a timeout into just another hurt, widening the distance between you.

Even if you’re in a relationship that is not prone to volatility, you’re still vulnerable. As mammals, we’ve evolved to be acutely aware of one another’s nonverbal cues. Our spouses may read body language like eye-rolling, the avoidance of eye contact, loud sighs, and dismissive tone of voice as threats. These signs communicate disdain, which slowly erodes trust and intimacy.

How do you take space in such a way that supports your relationship, brings you closer, and gives you a perspective that moves beyond blame?

There are three things to consider before taking a break from conflict.

The When

Timing is everything. This means not shutting your partner down prematurely. In a healthy relationship, it’s important to hang in there even when your partner says things you don’t agree with.

Listening non-defensively, finding the reasonable part of their complaint, and offering assurance can go a long way in avoiding escalation. Non-verbal cues, such as nodding your head and maintaining eye contact, can significantly increase the likelihood of a productive conversation.

It’s important to recognize that even if you do this, arguments can still spiral out of control. For this reason, the when is also about recognizing when it is time to stop, give yourselves a chance to cool down, and recover from flooding.

It’s a fine line. To do it well, you must simultaneously be able to tolerate low-level conflict, and yet be aware of when it has become more beneficial to stop an argument at a moment’s notice. When every fiber of your being wants to shut down or scream, catch yourself on the cusp of feeling compromised and take a deep breath and let your partner know that you need a break.

The What

Once you have recognized that a break from conflict needs to happen, what you do with it will determine whether the time apart will be beneficial or detrimental. At The Northampton Center For Couples Therapy, where we see 100 couples a week, this is where people seem most prone to going away.

Navigating relational turmoil solo can stir up a slew of emotions. Even if you are the one who initiated the space, it’s not uncommon to find yourself feeling abandoned and rejected, or hyper-vigilant and self-protected. Both of these mindsets can barricade you from reconnecting with your partner and, ultimately, do more harm than good.

For this reason, it is important during a timeout to intentionally cease any negative thoughts about your partner. Instead, try to consciously cultivate a receptivity to the idea that there may be more to the picture than what you are seeing and feeling from your angered vantage point.

For this to succeed, refrain from venting to others, or even to yourself. Instead, channel your turmoil into something unrelated. Go for a walk, fold the laundry, weed the garden, or do anything that takes your mind away from the conflict.

While engaged in this other activity, if your mind latches onto anger or fear, allow yourself to let it go and intentionally consider that there may be no clear right or wrong. There are two views to every conflict and both are valid.

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