Although we can’t back this up with “studies” or “research,” but we’re prepared to wager a bet that 90% of fights you have with your partner escalate quicker than they need to. What started as a small reminder or question can quickly explode into an unnecessarily passive-aggressive bickering match, and then you’re left feeling remorseful/bummed/still a little pissed/regretful. Then it could be anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 days of walking on eggshells around each other before finally burying the hatchet.
That’s a whole lot of time wasted on an argument you never wanted to have in the first place.
So, how do you avoid all the messiness? Two words: Time. Outs.
Time-outs aren’t just a good idea because they let you and your partner go from boiling point to a stable simmer… they’re actually allowing your brain to catch up with your behavior. In stressful situations, the parts of our brain that, according to Nathan Cobb, Ph.D., “help us to solve problems creatively, to think about things objectively, to utilize new skills we’ve learned, or to put ourselves in another person’s shoes, that part of our brain gets overridden.” And what takes over is our limbic system - the primitive part of our brain that can only freeze, fight, or flight. (So if we’re hoping our limbic system can reach a productive resolution… we’re batting 0 for 3.)
Here’s how to call for a time-out when you and your partner need one:
Agree on a time-out signal.
You and your partner need to come up with a cue or a word that will signal to both of you to take a break. Also worthwhile is agreeing on what kind of fighting isn’t productive (and will most likely warrant a time-out being called) such as name-calling, voice-raising, and taking jabs. Whether it’s a finger being held up, saying “5 minutes” or coming up with a referee call - design the time-out signal and the rules of the game beforehand.
Honor It Immediately.
Treat the signal with the seriousness it deserves. Don’t keep talking through it, don’t get defensive – the signal is the signal. It is not an attack. All it means is, “I’ve gone past the point I feel comfortable continuing to discuss this without getting my thoughts together.” If you respect it when your partner uses it, they’ll respect it when you do.
Take A SHORT Break.
The time-out is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. If you or your partner have an avoidant attachment type (Cat, Rabbit) you will LOVE the breaks because you HATE conflict. But you’re not off the hook just yet. The break is finite (5-10 minutes should do it) and yes, you have to come back into the room and finish what you started. Just hopefully with a cooler, calmer demeanor.
Structure Your Time-Out To Work For You.
Your focus during your time-out is simple: self-regulation. Do what works best for you! Things such as:
- The 4-7-8 breath (Inhale to the count of 4, hold for 7, exhale for 8)
- Close your eyes and imagine a time you were stress-free
- Go for a short walk or do some push-ups
You can also try positive affirmations. Saying them to yourself (out loud or silently) in the morning, evening, or during a time of distress is a great tool. Some of our favorites include:
- “It’s okay. I’m upset. It’s not the end of the world.”
- “This isn’t personal. We can work through this together.”
- “I’m hurt and I love your partner. There’s something I’m not understanding right now and we will figure it out.”
If you apply some of these tips to a good old-fashioned break mid-argument, you and your partner will find yourselves revisiting the issue in a completely different mindset. You might be shocked at how much quicker you can arrive at resolutions, apologize, take responsibility, and move forward. The only question is… what will you do with all your extra time?