I’m frequently asked whether it’s ever OK to walk away from a fight.
The short answer is yes. You should take a break from a heated argument because the type of creative and objective problem solving that makes you a whiz at work shuts down when you feel the strong negative emotions associated with fights.
However, you can’t leave the conflict unresolved. Instead, have a time out, allowing you both the space and perspective to calmly assess the conflict.
When is a Time Out Necessary
A time out is necessary when one or both partners are so triggered that they are no longer able to have a productive conversation. When we are triggered at 90% or 95% our skills go downhill and we are incapable of exploring a conflict with the same level of openness. If feelings of jealousy, insecurity, anger or hopelessness are at high intensity, then our capacity for effective problem solving is diminished. Learning to use time outs to calm ourselves down and clarify our feelings and needs can help us return to the conversation at a later time, when we are less triggered, and resolve the conflict effectively.
How to Make Time Outs Clear and Fair
To make a time out fair, you need clear-cut rules that give the both parties assurances that their space is respected and the conflict will be addressed. It is better to identify and agree on the rules of a time out in a moment when neither partner is in a triggered state. Try these tips:
- Agree on a word or phrase that signals a time out is necessary.
- Convey to your partner that resolving the issue is important to you.
- Don’t use accusatory language. Say, “I feel triggered,” not, “you made me angry.”
- Agree on a time to talk again, soon. It generally takes around 30 minutes to calm down.
How to Have an Effective Time Out
A time out is not merely a break, but an opportunity to feel our negative emotions and gain perspective. To do so, perform an inventory of the emotions and thoughts you’re experiencing. Write down your thoughts and feelings to the following questions:
- What sensations am I experiencing in my body right now?
- Where in my body does this experience feel most intense?
- On a scale of 0-10, how intense is this physical experience?
Next. imagine your feelings have a physical form and describe their attributes:
- Level of intensity
After, turn your attention to your immediate concerns about the time out:
- What are my fears about this time out?
- What are my thoughts or beliefs about this?
- What do I predict will happen?
Make note of your prediction. Notice what you predicted, and the future story your brain imagined. Finally, identify what triggered you. Now, check in on your values and the kind of partner that you want to be and use the following steps from Nonviolent Communication to identify and express your needs effectively:
- When x happened, I felt _____
- I need _____
- Would you be willing to _____
After a brief period of calm introspection, you should feel closer to the heart of the problem and further away from its intensity. Use this as a tool as often as you and your partner feel triggered in arguments, and you’ll find you’re both better able to listen and be aware of differing needs. If you’re concerned about how to handle yourself when discussing the issue again, consult the University of Texas at Austin’s comprehensive post on building healthy relationships.