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TIME OUT: A Couple's Tool in Conflict

By Lynne Foote

Conflict is inevitable in every relationship but fighting is not. Learning how to engage with your partner when you are caught up in the grips of fear and anger is not an easy task. But with some time-tested guidelines that a couple agrees to use when a conversation escalates into a fight, it is possible to manage conflict and to successfully reach resolution, even if this means you agree to disagree. And through this process you can actually forge a stronger connection.

I believe intimate relationships are a sacred path and continually offer us opportunities to wake up and come to a greater awareness, which is the heart of a spiritual practice. Conflict is an important part of this path. I have worked with couples for over 20 years and have some tools that have proven to be invaluable during these tumultuous times. Perhaps the crown jewel during conflict is knowing when to stop the conversation. The time to stop is when the argument has reached the point where resolution is impossible. This is when you need a Time Out.

Research has introduced the concept of a stress threshold with a functional window where resolution of conflict is possible. We need to be inside this window in order to resolve conflicts. If we are below the bottom threshold of this window, there is no energy and so the conflict is not strong enough to grab and hold our attention. The focus of this article is on the upper threshold: what it is; how to recognize it; and why it is an essential condition for reaching resolution in conflicts.

The stress threshold is that measure where our physiology enters the argument. If we are within the window, below the upper threshold, we are able to think clearly, take in and process information, and remain engaged with our partner even when the conversation is charged and uncomfortable. However, once we cross that line, our parasympathetic nervous system automatically kicks in and takes over and we assume the posture of fight, flight, or submit. None of these reactions can successfully resolve a conflict.

There are two things we can do to change this stress threshold. We can raise the threshold so that it takes more stress before we cross that line. We do this via healthy living: good nutrition, regular exercise, good sleep. We live in Boulder…we know the rules. The other thing which is still within our power to do, though not as fully, is we can reduce the stress. (I have suggestions for couples on how they can do this and plan to offer these ideas in a future article.) What is important at this point is to learn how to recognize when one or both of you has crossed this threshold, and what you can do about it.

Here is a list of key signals which you can look for in either yourself, or in your partner, to know that the threshold has been crossed:

  • The pace and intensity of the argument is escalating dramatically;
  • You are trapped in the polarity of blaming and shaming;
  • You have stopped listening and are preparing your counter attack while your partner is speaking;
  • You are no longer thinking clearly, nor are you taking in new information, either from your partner, or from within yourself;
  • You are stuck in a cyclical pattern so that the conversation is no longer productive;
  • You are “kitchen sinking” which means you have left the particular issue of the conflict and have brought in the laundry list of complaints;
  • You feel that you, your partner, or the conversation is out of control.

Once you or your partner recognizes any of these conditions, the healthy response is to choose to take a Time Out. There are three cardinal rules that make a Time Out successful:

  1. If either partner calls for a Time Out, it is non-negotiable and you both stop the arguing process immediately. Period. Unless leaving each other could prove dangerous, like on a city street in the middle of the night. Stopping the inertia of great outrage amidst waves of fear and the impulse to defend, requires a degree of impulse control. This can mean going against the force of your inner emotional tidal wave which is demanding that you prove your point; surrendering your intense need to be seen and understood; or releasing your pride’s attempt to win the battle, even if it means losing the war. Whenever one of you calls a Time Out, it is essential that both of you recognize that this does not put someone in a “one-up” power position. It calls for trusting that the person calling the Time Out sees that either one or both of you has crossed the stress threshold and that this choice of Time Out is actually a loving gesture and is a move towards resolution. But over time, Time Out works only when you follow the second rule.
  2. Whoever calls Time Out must bring the issue back to the table within 24-48 hours. Absolutely. Because stopping the fight does not resolve the conflict. Buried conflicts have the uncanny ability to go underground, grow, spread, and pop-up with an even greater ferocity. Over time they poison the well of relationship. Often a Time Out might be a simple ten minute break where you go to different rooms to cool down and gain composure. Sometimes the intensity requires one of you to leave the house. If you do, it is imperative, for safety reasons, to tell your partner what you are doing and when you plan to return. Releasing the pent up energy via a brisk walk can help your nervous system come below the stress threshold so you can re-enter the conversation. But sometimes the intensity is so high and your system is so charged, that you will need to take one to two days to come back into the resolution zone. If you begin the conversation the next day after some sleep, some food, some time apart, and the conversation is escalating dramatically within 5-10 minutes, you must take more time. Biofeedback research has revealed that it can take several days for physiology to return to neutral during intense disagreements, much longer than anyone would have predicted which leads us to the third rule.
  3. During Time Out, it is your responsibility to release the emotional intensity within you that is keeping the issue charged. Time Out is not just a pause, it is a rigorous time of working internally to withdraw your projections, your blame, and take responsibility for your role in this dance. (This will be another topic of future articles). It is a time to touch down into the Love that is still alive below the conflict. By discharging the energy, and regaining the love, you and your partner can come to the table with an openness to truly hear, understand, and engage with each other. This is when conflicts can be resolved.

But how do you discharge all of this energy? I often tell my clients that you need to hold hands (at least metaphorically) before you enter a conflict. It helps to remember your partner in either the light of Partner as My Beloved, or Partner as Innocent Child so that during the conflict, you contrast this bigger picture of your loving relationship and see that this conflict is only one small part of the whole. You need some way to break the entrapment of my- partner-as-enemy. There is an old Irish saying that my dear friend Barbara has gifted me with: There is nothing in a family beyond forgiveness. What this means to me is that there is nothing between me and my partner that cannot find resolution. What we need are effective communication and conflict resolution tools to guide us through the treacherous waters of conflict and disagreement. And we need to nurture and protect a conscious, loving ground within each of us, and between the two of us. When our hearts can remain open, and our minds are clear, we can work through all of the difficult passages and come to an understanding that is greater than our starting point.

Your feedback and ideas are welcome.

Contact Lynne Foote

Phone: 303-447-2987


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