If you sometimes find yourself on the receiving end of angry outbursts from your partner, you are not alone. And if sometimes you are the one who is yelling or walking away in disgust, rest assured many other couples are experiencing similar breakdowns in communication. For most of us, despite our best intentions, relationships are fertile ground for disagreements and arguments.
Why do we experience conflict?
As individuals, we all have different needs, desires and perceptions. Although we may do our best to attract friends and partners who more closely reflect our values and preferences, those people will still see things differently than we do at least some of the time.
In fact, the more your partner shares your preferences and perspectives, the more jarring it can be when differences surface. It can feel like a betrayal. How could they see things so differently than you do?
While conflict is a normal part of all relationships, what defines your level of joy in a given relationship is how you conceptualize and handle those inevitable disagreements.
If you see a difference in opinion as a betrayal, you are likely to feel insulted, hurt, outraged or otherwise deeply disturbed. But you can choose to see differences as an opportunity to expand your own perspective and practice empathy, IF you are secure in your own sense of self and have healthy boundaries.
One reason, couples fight so hard to “win” an argument is because they fear “losing control” of the relationship. They are often afraid that the things that matter most to them, will be lost if they understand things from their partner’s point of view.
But that universal fear points to poor boundaries. Healthy boundaries empower us so that we can safely validate and empathize with our partner’s viewpoint without surrendering what matters most to us.
However, healthy boundaries are not enough. It also helps to understand how your brain works under stress. Many of us are capable of being reasonable and empathetic when a given interaction isn’t triggering or threatening. But if the stakes are high and extreme emotions are aroused, we risk tipping over into behavior that can severely damage the relationship.
Your brain is designed to bypass its ability to reason under stress. When a situation arouses fear, an ancient part of your brain called the amygdala takes over. And this part of the brain can only do four things: Fight, Flight, Freeze or Fawn.
Those four functions are intended to save your life under extreme circumstances threatening your survival. But those coping mechanisms do nothing to build connection or solve disagreements in a relationship.
Unfortunately, a lot of couples avoid talking about the issues in their relationship until an argument arises. And without the proper relationship tools, those arguments can quickly escalate into situations that are not only painful but potentially dangerous.
Below are several key tools for making sure that you and your partner do not tip over into that dangerous zone. These tools are designed to lower the temperature on potentially volatile disagreements and help you and your partner stay connected to the love you share for each other.
Learn the Proper Way to Take a Time-Out
1. Agree to the terms of your time-outs BEFORE there is conflict. The person who calls a time-out is responsible for re-establishing contact. Agree to a maximum time (24 hours for instance) before you will at least call to say you are still not available to speak.
2. When your partner calls a time-out resist the temptation to say more. Stop talking and honor the time out. Your partner needs to stop before things get out of hand. You both should step away and engage in self-nurturing. Plan ahead what you will do during a time-out to care for and soothe yourself. When you call a time-out do so calmly and without explanation. Simply say “I am taking a time-out.”
3. Use the time-out to reflect on your feelings and your part. This is not a time to take your partner’s inventory and call your friends to tell them how messed up your partner is. Nor is this a time to use alcohol or drugs to numb the pain. Get in touch with your feelings by writing them down, crying them out, etc. Of course your partner made mistakes but so did you in all likelihood. Focus on the one thing you can change in this life: you. And do something nice for yourself!
4. Once you have re-established contact, agree to a time when you will resume addressing the issue(s) that catapulted you into conflict. Do NOT take time-outs simply to stop a conversation you don’t wish to engage in. Follow up and follow through. You, your partner and your relationship deserve the respect of having closure so work toward that common goal.
5. It is crucial is that the person who calls a time-out 1) says they are off their time out and 2) offers to resume the conversation they interrupted when they took their time-out. This will make it clear to both the person who called the time out and the person who honored the time out that time outs are NOT being used to control or avoid conversations.
Practice Time-Outs When Everything is Going Well
I cannot overstate how crucial this is. Under stress the brain reverts to the amygdala which has NO access to the prefrontal cortex. The amygdala can only perform Fight, Flight, Freeze or Fawn. If the habit is to Fight, then that is what the brain will command. But if you have persistently built the habit of taking Time-Outs when you have access to your prefrontal cortex, that habit will guide your actions under stress.
This is why first responders, soldiers and emergency personnel practice their maneuvers over and over again – because they know that without that practice, their brains will revert to Fight, Flight, Freeze or Fawn under duress and the necessary actions will not be performed. For this reason, please practice your timeouts when things are going well. It will serve you well when you actually need to take a time-out!
Let Go of the Need to Win and Play this Game Instead!
Needing to “win” an argument will LOSE the relationship. The drive to “win” an argument can lead to ever more extreme forms of conflict. It is important to keep your focus on the bigger picture and remember what is at stake.
Compete with yourself instead of your partner. Use your resolve to change your patterns instead of trying to “convince” your partner of your perspective. Learn healthy ways to share your point of view such as Show Me Your Movie. You can learn more about this transformative and fun game here.