Step 1: Mutually understand the benefits of a break and the cost of not taking one when it is necessary.
Despite our very best efforts, sometimes conflict is going to get heated. Being able to shift gears in the heat of an argument and take a break is one of the most crucial relationship skills. We compound the problem by staying engaged in a conflict that is devolving to criticism, stonewalling, contempt, or defensiveness. After a certain point in conflict, we are likely to do more harm than good. This is the moment when we need to take a break. Breaks give you time to calm down, deepen your perspective, and have a successful “do-over” with your partner.
Step 2: Identify the signs you need a break.
Recognizing when a break is necessary will take some practice. Establish with your partner now what the signs are that a break is necessary. Then, look for those signs when you and your partner are in conflict.
Signs to include:
- When I recognize I am flooded or my partner is flooded.
- When I notice my mind is racing and jumping from topic to topic.
- When my partner and I are interrupting each other.
- When I feel myself shutting down (getting quiet, ignoring).
- When my partner or I begin to make personal attacks on each other.
- When my partner or I become sarcastic or mock one another.
- Non-verbal cues such as eye-rolling, storming out of the room, or slamming doors.
Step 3: Initiate the break and agree on a time to reconnect.
When you notice the predetermined signs that a conflict is bubbling out of control, initiate the strategy of taking a break.
- State your intention so your partner does not feel rejected or abandoned. Communicate to your partner that a break will help you re-focus on the relationship. For example, “This conversation is important to me. I recognize that I’m/we’re too upset right now to talk about this constructively. I worry that if we continue this conversation right now, we will only make it worse. Let’s take a break so I/we can calm down and come back together.”
- Set parameters for the break. Agree together on how long of a break you need. A break should be at least 20 minutes (that’s how long it will take your body to physiologically calm down). A break should be no longer than a day, or you risk building resentment. It is critical after the break to come back together. Agree on a time to reconnect now.
Step 4: Calm down.
The purpose of a break is foremost to calm down. The greater insight and perspective you garner will result from first calming down. What you do with the break will determine whether the time apart will be beneficial or detrimental. Channel your distress into something unrelated that takes your mind off of the conflict. Go for a run, walk the dog, go take a shower, water your plants.
Tips for calming down:
- Cease negative thoughts about your partner.
- Consider that there may be more to the picture than what you see and feel in this moment.
- Refrain from venting to others or to yourself. (This is probably a bad time to call your sister.)
- Do not go prepare for battle or strengthen your case.
Step 5: Come back together.
After the agreed upon amount of time, come back together. Coming back together is a critical component of taking a break. It is necessary to achieve resolution and reconnection. It also behaviorally shows your partner that you care about them and the conversation you were having.
You have a new opportunity to get back on track. You will likely experience greater clarity and closeness because the “big emotions” have subsided. You will also be able to focus more clearly on your shared relationship goals and see the situation through a broader perspective. You will be better positioned to communicate successfully with one another.
Here are some ideas for starting your reconnection conversation on the right foot:
- “My reaction was too extreme earlier. Can we try that again?”
- “My feelings were hurt and I did not mean the things I said. I’m sorry.”
- “I can see my part in all of this.”
- “Let’s try this over again.”
- “We were both saying…”
- “Let’s find our common ground.”
Katy Manganella, LPC-Intern supervised by Susan Gonzales, LPC-S, LMFT-S