Consider Taking a Pause
You probably don’t need to be told that maintaining and growing intimate relationships is no small feat. The work we put into our romantic relationships is almost impossible to quantify. We do unpaid labor in our homes, work to bring home money, manage our family relationships, plan date nights, try to avoid our parents’ mistakes, and so much more. In general, there is always something that needs to be done within our romantic relationships. And even if there isn’t, we often feel as though we are putting something off that we really could or should be doing instead. How can you even imagine taking a break when there is so much to do?
Taking a break or pausing in our relationships means taking the time to be purposeful, despite what our gut may say at first. With the basic necessities of life growing ever more difficult to maintain, finding space and time to take care of ourselves and our romantic partner can easily fall to the wayside. Finding and creating moments of connection in our romantic relationships can be incredibly difficult, particularly when potential moments of connection are instead relegated to resolving the inevitable conflicts that will occur. Before we return to this idea of taking a break, let’s discuss the existence of conflict in our relationships.
Conflict is Natural
Conflict is a natural part of our existence as humans and is neither inherently good nor inherently bad, it simply is. In some situations, conflict can be strictly a good thing, such as when someone stands up for their boundaries. Conflict comes in all shapes and sizes, from as small as two people wanting the last candy bar, to larger conflicts, such as whether or not a couple should get married, or move in with their ailing parents, or move forward as a couple after an affair. I am sure you can come up with a million other examples of large conflicts. Depending on the couple, some of these larger conflicts may feel more important than others. And for some couples, the small conflicts like, “Who gets the last candy bar?” may lead to the biggest argument of all. I know that last one is true because it has literally happened in my
Compared to the presence or size of a conflict, what’s more important is our method of handling the conflict. Conflict can feel too big to manage — too much to handle in the moment. In the midst of conflicts, we can start questioning everything.
Does my partner love me? Do they even care about me? How can they say that to me? How can they not see my side? What am I going to do if we divorce? What are they going to do if we divorce?
All this doubt and questioning can (and often does) lead to the emergence of physical symptoms. Our bodies may get warm, sweaty, and even enter a mode of fight, flight, fawn, or fold. We can feel exhausted, or exhilarated, or overwhelmed. We may feel tightness in our chest, throat, and other muscles. The body responds to stress in a variety of ways and the list above is nowhere near complete.
These experiences can lead to and/or tell us that we are in a state called “emotional flooding.” In short, emotional flooding occurs when the logical part of our brain turns off and our emotions control our actions. When this happens, it can be incredibly difficult, if not downright impossible, to actually solve our conflicts in a meaningful and growth-oriented manner. You may have heard of the old adage, “Don’t go to bed mad.” I do not believe in this advice. It contains a beautiful sentiment, but it may very well cause more harm than good in many situations. On the contrary, taking a pause during conflict to say, go to bed, can help you address your physical needs and return to the conflict with a more grounded and productive perspective.
So What Do We Do?
So, you’re struggling to work through conflicts with your partner. Perhaps you keep returning to the same argument, the conversation always escalates, or you continually hit a wall in your attempts to resolve issues. You may be able to work through and develop skills with a therapist in order to return your brain to a calm state when emotional flooding occurs. This will not work every time, nor is it even the guaranteed best way to handle conflict. Another realistic and accessible option we have is to put a pause on the current argument and come back to it later. On the one hand, this idea is very simple. On the other hand, it needs to be used with a specific set of rules in order to be used effectively and to lead to a positive, long-lasting change in your romantic relationship. From here, we will use ‘pause,’ ‘break,’ and ‘safe-word’ as key terms referencing this idea.
Let me be very clear: honesty, clarity, and a good-faith effort are paramount for your successful use of this tool. This tool is not to be used to simply avoid an argument, to punish your partner, or as a way to pretend a conflict isn’t happening. Below are the steps for successfully implementing a healthy pause. A short version of the steps can be found below that.
Before the conflict
- Find a ‘safe-word’ for ending conflict. This can be a simple word or phrase like, ‘pause,’ ‘timeout,’ or ‘let’s take a timeout.’ You can also develop a complex safe word, such as ‘avocado,’ or ‘evasion.’ Including a physical movement may also be beneficial, such as putting your hands up in a T ‘time-out’ position.
- Practice using this safe-word and the ‘during the conflict’ and ‘after the conflict’ skills. Bring up that you are using the safe-word for practice early on in the conversation. I recommend practicing using a low-level conflict so you and your partner know what it feels like to use and follow through with the conflict safe-word.
- Find within yourself signs that might indicate that taking a pause or break is a good idea. These signs are likely the same that tell you emotional flooding is taking place. Ask your partner if they have noticed any potential signs for you and offer your own thoughts for what your partner’s signs are.
During the conflict
- Notice your internal state. When you notice emotional flooding beginning to take over, consider using the safe-word. If it’s not time to use the word, be aware of the signs you have previously decided would be good indicators for pausing.
- When you have determined that it’s time to take a pause or use your safe-word, state the safe word and/or agreed-on physical action to your partner.
- The key-word must be completely accepted and respected by each partner. At this point, hold back any further conversation or judgment of the use of the safe-word.
- The partner who has used the safe-word (Partner A) shares the amount of time they require in order to return to any form of conversation. Partner A will tell Partner B this information as soon as they feel able to. This may be 30 seconds, 5 minutes, 30 minutes, or 2 hours. I recommend less than 2 hours with a preference between 5 and 15 minutes.
- After taking this time, Partner A communicates with their partner when they are able to continue the conversation. This may be done right away, some time shortly after, or may be scheduled for another time. Example: “Can we come back to this conversation tomorrow at 7:30pm?”
- Partner B confirms this time as acceptable or offers an alternative. This step repeats until a time in the future is selected. A time must be selected, even if the result in the end is that neither partner wishes to continue the conversation.
- Continue the conversation from the best place you can when you next start. If you need to use the safe-word again, do so. It is okay to have to use a pause multiple times. It’s better to take quite some time to come to a mutually beneficial result than it is to repeat the same arguments over and over again with no change.
After the conflict
- If you feel the safe-word was mishandled, have a conversation about this with your partner. The tool must be used in good-faith. If you continue to struggle with this, continue scheduling an appointment with a couples therapist. There may be more here to work through or an appointment or two may be enough to work through difficulties with properly using the safe-word.
- Personally reflect on your use of the safe-word. Did you use it at an appropriate time? Could you have used it earlier? May it have been beneficial to use it later? Was it the appropriate safe-word – do you need to come up with another one?
- Reflect on the conversation with your partner. What went well? What could have gone better? Where did we struggle?
- Take care of yourself. If you are emotionally flooded, taking time to do kind things (or even just one small thing) for yourself will make the next interaction go better. Practice mindfulness, self-care, or use a grounding technique. If you find it difficult to deescalate yourself, consider finding a therapist who can help you to build tools and navigate interpersonal conflict in the future.
The short version of this tool is:
- Come up with a safe-word to pause arguments, agree on this with your partner.
- If you start becoming emotionally flooded, use the safe-word.
- The safe-word must be respected.
- Take 30 seconds to 2 hours (preferably less time) to collect yourself.
- Set up a time to meet again and continue the conversation. This may happen right away, an hour from now, tomorrow at 7:30pm, or another set time.
- Come into the new conversation with a goal to work with your partner to solve the conflict together.
- Consider using the tool again if you need to.
I hope this tool will be useful for you in your romantic relationship. If you are struggling to use this tool, consider talking to a couples therapist. They may be able to assist you with utilizing the tool effectively or provide other methods for highlighting difficulties you have had with handling conflict in your relationship.
Please take care of yourself and I hope this article finds you well,