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  • Isabelle Morley, PsyD

"Let's Take a Break"... From This Fight

You're mid-fight and your partner says maybe you should take a break so you can both calm down. You agree. But... now what? I'll tell you what to do during this break (and why) to make it effective.

Why and When to Take Breaks

Although it might be hard to pause the fight, it can be very helpful (even necessary) to take some time off from arguing. This is especially true if either of you become flooded, which is when your fight or flight response kicks in (you can read more about flooding here).

You need to take a break because you will be physiologically unable to have a productive conversation. Once you're flooded, your body in fight or flight mode, and it starts preparing for survival instead of preparing for communication. If you keep going, the argument will escalate. You won't be able to listen and actually hear what your partner is saying, and you won't be able to effectively communicate your thoughts or feelings, either.

How do you know if you're flooded or when to take a break? Here are some hints:

  • If your blood pressure is soaring and you're seeing red, it's time to take a break.

  • If you've been at it for an hour plus and you're going around in circles, take a break.

  • If the argument is getting meaner and bigger, with each of you bringing in new issues and filtering your words less, take a break.

  • If you're confused about why you're even fighting because you've cycled through so many topics, you guessed it, take a break.

Define the Break

For all my millennials out there- it's important to put some parameters around the break so you don't end up with a Ross and Rachel situation. Breaks need to be communicated, finite, and purposeful.

Here are things to keep in mind:

  • Communicate that you need a break because you're upset (no storming out of the room)

"I'm feeling really upset right now and I'm having a hard time continuing this

conversation, can we take a break?"

  • Verbalize that you know the conversation isn't finished

"I know we have a lot more to discuss about this and I want us to get to a point

where we both feel heard."

  • Identify how long you think you might need...

"I could use an hour to clear my head."

  • ... Or agree on when you'll reconnect

"How about we pick this up tonight after dinner?"

Don't Do This:

One of the common mistakes I see couples making is that they take a break during bad fights and use that time to prepare to verbally destroy their partner. They think of counterpoints to all of their partner's claims, they stockpile examples of when their partner was wrong, and in doing so, they further rev up their fight or flight response.

Don't prepare for emotional battle. You will not be an effective communicator or listener if you do this. Plus, chances are you'll end up saying things you regret.

Instead, Do This:

Use a break to lower your defenses and let go of some anger. See a break as an opportunity to reset your emotions and prepare yourself to go back into the conversation with more understanding, calm, and empathy. Your goal during a break is to make yourself a better partner during disagreements, and that's what your partner should be doing as well.

If you were in the middle of an escalating shouting match, a break is an opportunity to not do any more damage. What is said, even in anger, cannot be taken back. Suggest taking a pause if it means you will prevent either of you from saying or doing something that will be destructive.

Here's What To Do During the Break:

1. Give your mind a break from rehearsing the argument. Don't replay the tapes.

2. Self-soothe in order to calm down. There are some ways to de-escalate described in this post, and include things like deep breathing and exercising.

3. Remember that your life is much bigger than this fight, and that the world is much larger than you. Put it into perspective.

4. Lower your emotional walls. Allow yourself to take in what your partner has said and really consider it. Don't be internally defensive; open yourself up to the possibility that they have a good point that's worth contemplating.

5. Switch places and think about how you would feel if you were in their shoes. Was your partner angry because you made weekend plans for the both of you without consulting them? Can you imagine feeling upset about this? Feeling as though your opinion isn't needed or doesn't matter, or that you don't have a say in your shared life?

6. Find something that they said or feel that you can validate. Remember, validation does not mean agreement. Expressing that you understand why they feel hurt does not mean that they are right and you are wrong. It means that you can see their side of things, that you care about and are attuned to their emotions, and that you're really listening to them even if you're not agreeing with every point.

Still Pissed?

If you can't seem to calm down during breaks, you might need some more help. Some people become stuck in angry, defensive mindsets and can't come back to the table in a calmer, more level-headed state. Most people aren't taught how to self-soothe during intense arguments, and it's a skill that might take some support and practice.

Ask friends or family for help, take a longer break (until you feel ready to productively reengage in the conversation), or you can try therapy to help you learn these skills.



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