Being able to shift gears in the heat of an argument and initiate a thoughtful break may be one of the most crucial relationship skills. Breaks can afford you time to cool down, deepen your perspective and have a successful re-do with your partner. But for these to be successful, it helps to follow a few basic practices.
Unfortunately, when conflicts arise, many of us are likely to do more harm than good. People might shut down conversations prematurely or push their partner past their threshold of tolerance. What often follows is that both partners get locked in a stalemate of deafening silence.
Even worse, we frequently 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 more of the problem. You are likely to exude contempt even if you don’t utter a word.
This tends to widen the chasm between you and your spouse. It can morph 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 it supports your relationship, brings you closer, and gives you a perspective that moves beyond blame?
It comes down to three principles.
Timing is crucial for successful space. It 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 like. Gestures like listening non-defensively, finding the reasonable part of their complaint, and offering assurance can go a long way in avoiding escalation. Non-verbals, such as nodding your head and softening your voice tone, can significantly increase the likelihood of a productive conversation.
Although we don’t want to cut off communication too quickly, it is important to recognize that, sometimes, even if you act from your best self, arguments can spiral out of control. For this reason, the when is also about recognizing when it is time to stop, give your bodies a chance to cool down, and recover from threat mode.
It's a fine line, a delicate balance. 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. Every fiber of your being may want to shut down or scream. Catching yourself on the cusp of feeling compromised and taking a deep breath (perhaps several), let your partner know that you - yes you - need a break. No small feat.
Once you have recognized that a break from communication needs to happen, the most critical piece of determining if your time apart will be beneficial versus detrimental is what you do with it. At The Northampton Center For Couples Therapy, where we see 100 couples a week, this is where people seem most prone to going awry.
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 spin in your head about your partner.
Instead, try to consciously cultivate 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. In fact, research shows that when couples fight it is most often because they are at cross-purposes.
You have taken a break, and you have used that break wisely to reset yourself emotionally. The next goal is the How – coming back together and trying again.
Timeouts can't last forever. Yes, they play a crucial role in helping you shift into a more centered and open place as a couple. But they can also backfire. If space extends into too much time, turning into a stalemate, the prolonged silence can be injurious and erode the trust in your relationship. Anything more than a waking day can begin to feed negative sentiment.
If this happens, there’s a good chance your timeout has morphed into a silent battleground where issues of control and power are being played out between you. In these instances, you'll each risk assuming that the other partner is fully responsible for re-initiating repair and taking the high road.
Don’t get stuck on who re-initiates. In most relationships, there is one partner who pursues more and one who distances more. And though this dynamic can cause real pain for couples, it is not a measure of love. I'm emphasizing repair, believing it takes priority (at the moment) and that your focus should be on achieving re-connection sooner rather than later.
Cultivate an attitude of “no big deal.” Research shows that people who are successful in their relationships know that the best way to get their partner to hear them is to stick to the issue at hand and de-emphasize taking a stand. They understand that conflict is inevitable, and they trust in their ability to handle themselves (and their partners). They say things like, "look, I'm not sure what happened earlier, but all I was trying to say is…" Successful couples also modulate their tone, intentionally using a friendly or humorous voice.
In summary, one of the most important relationship skills you can have is a finely tuned emotional break. This should not happen prematurely, nor should it go on for too long. But done correctly, this break can support you in slowing down to pause (or even stop) when that is better than continuing a conflict. Likewise, keeping an eye on productive habits during the break, and making sure the break does not go on for extended periods of time, help to assure successful understanding and re-connection.
Learning to stay calm in the face of threat is not easy, but with time and practice we all have the potential to become less reactive and "shift states," to move more fluidly in and out of conflict, and stay connected. Practicing compassion in the form of patience and tolerance for our partners and ourselves can help us learn how to love well.
Note: A variation of this article appears on the Gottman Relationship Blog.