How would you like a simple, effective strategy to manage intense feelings and defuse an argument with your partner? Read on…
1: Recognize the “Stuck Cycle”
As anyone in an intimate relationship knows, argument and conflict can feel really difficult and heavy. In an ideal scenario, the couple hashes things out respectfully — seeking to understand the other’s point of view while moving toward a solution both people feel good about. However, we all have experienced that moment when an argument shifts to what I call the “stuck cycle.” The tension has escalated, you no longer feel heard, and you realize that you and your partner are missing each other completely.
At this point, things can get volatile quickly. Yelling and unkind comments result, and the argument has the potential to do real damage. The actual reason for the argument may be lost. The vortex is real…and it’s easy to get sucked in.
2: Defuse an Argument: Press the Pause Button
It is important to be able to recognize when an argument has reached the stuck cycle. At that moment, when your heart is pounding and harsh words are on the tip of your tongue, be present with yourself. Step back from the argument and say (either to yourself or out loud), “Something’s wrong here. We’re not able to hear each other and I’m feeling myself getting destabilized.”
And when you hear yourself say that, you know it’s time to press the pause button and take a break to avoid saying something that is unkind or that goes against your values. Realizing that you’ve hit the stuck cycle, and extracting yourself from it, is a powerful thing to do to defuse an argument.
3: Take a Break
Think about what you need in the situation. Tell your partner you’d like to take a break, and do something for yourself. You may say something like this, “Hey, honey. Something’s getting in the way of us being able to communicate right now. I think we need to take a break and continue talking when I’m calmer.” You are not running away from the situation — storming out and leaving your spouse in an angry huff. You are consciously and intentionally taking a breather to defuse an argument.
Here are some suggested things you can do, by yourself, to calm down:
- Take a walk
- Listen to music that grounds you
- Read a book
- Watch something humorous on TV or the Internet
- Take a relaxing shower or bath
- Meditate or practice deep breathing
- Call and talk to a friend or family member who can listen and be present with you that’s also a friend of the marriage
- Stick pins in your voodoo doll (just kidding on this one)
Have this list ready in your mind or on paper, so that in the heat of the moment it is easy to retreat to a go-to activity that calms and regulates your nervous system.
4: Come Back!
After you’ve calmed down and the situation has defused, it’s important to revisit the argument. If both you and your partner feel better after a break, you may be tempted to move on and let the disagreement go. There are times this can be helpful, but most of the time it can become an unhealthy habit. While some arguments are okay to release, most need to be revisited. Coming back is particularly important if someone said something very hurtful or mean during the argument. Both partners need to know that all feelings are acceptable but not all words and behaviors are in the heat of the moment.
Revisiting the argument and calmly addressing what was said provides accountability and an opportunity for empathy and reconnection.When you push the pause button, make sure you communicate to your partner a time when you wish to resume the argument (which, hopefully, will then be a conversation). You can say, “Let’s reconnect in 30 minutes,” or “We can talk about this after we put the kids to bed.” And then follow through! Taking a break is the easy part, but coming back is what really matters.
Let’s Talk About the Research
Renowned psychologist John Gottman found in his research that when people take at least a 20 minute break during an argument, their heart rate calms down and they have more access to humor and affection. So it’s a biological fact — pushing the pause button regulates us and allows us to have a more productive conversation and defuse an argument.
Have you ever found yourself laughing with your spouse at the argument you had the day or week before? What seemed so intense at the time actually seems quite humorous after the fact. Well, imagine if you took that break during the argument and were able to come back and (respectfully) infuse some mutual levity into the situation. In this case, laughter truly is the best medicine!
To Sum it Up
The next time you are in an argument with your partner and you feel yourselves reaching that stuck cycle, stop and say, “Hey, I need to stop talking about this and take care of myself.” Tune in to where you are and listen to yourself, knowing that you will return present in the relationship and constructively engaged in resolving the argument. It’s a powerful thing to be able to take a break and take care of yourself, defuse an argument, and then come back at a specific time to show up and resolve the conflict constructively.
Knowing When to Seek Couples Counseling
Sometimes there are certain topics that couples just can’t discuss without getting into an argument. They try to take a break and revisit an argument, and they experience the same logjam. This can happen when talking about a betrayal in the relationship, or even about everyday things like sex, kids, parenting, in-laws and other topics. If you find this happening, it may be time for couples counseling.