Conflict is a normal and even healthy part of any relationship. Learning how to fight well together can be more important than learning how to stop fighting. The latter – not having conflict – should probably not be the focus of any relationship, although it makes sense that we want the fighting to stop when there is high conflict in a relationship.
For those who have high levels of conflict, who are simply uncomfortable with the regularity of conflict, or who experience distress because of the repetitiveness of the same argument loop, there may be a need to take a step back and evaluate how productive your conflict is.
Because here’s the deal. When you are in the midst of conflict and you are not fighting fairly (see Fair Fighting Rules), sometimes the best thing to do is to take a break from the conflict.
When we get activated, when our bodies start to feel overwhelmed or distressed, our thinking brain shuts down and the most reptilian part of our brain takes over.
Very little productive communication will occur after our thinking brain goes offline. I encourage couples – especially those who are learning how to fight productively – to let the other know you need a break to calm your body.
We need our thinking brain to be online when navigating conflict, and thus, there is a strong argument for getting familiar with your body’s signs of activation so that you can give yourself a timeout when flooded.
When you are activated, what do you notice?
Do you start to notice your heart beating more quickly? Do feel heat course through your body? Do you feel pressure on your chest? Do you start to shut down? Knowing the physiological indicators that you are moving into “fight or flight” is pivotal to fighting fairly because they alert you to the need to take a break to calm your body and return to a place where your thinking brain can come back online.
When you take a break, there are guidelines to follow so that trust can be built between you and your partner during the break.
Communicate directly and kindly that (1) you need to take a break and (2) you will return to the conversation once you are more calm in your body. Otherwise, taking a break will feel like stonewalling, like you are punishing your partner by disconnecting, and this will degrade the trust you are trying to build.
Outside of a conflict, discuss with your partner the strategy of taking a break. Everyone has different ways of calming and the length of time needed to calm your body will vary by individual also. You may need 90 minutes of deep breathing, drinking water, and journaling to feel calm. Your partner may need to take a 15-minute nap. Honor what you need and what your partner needs in these moments. Over time, you will need to take breaks less frequently during conflict and the time needed to calm your body will decrease so that you can return to productive conversation more quickly.
Whoever calls the time out commits to returning to the conversation as soon as possible once they are feeling more centered in their body and regulated in their emotion.
When learning to fight fairly, you will make mistakes. You may miss your body’s signals that you are too overwhelmed to have constructive conversation. You may step out of your values and not adhere perfectly to the fair fighting rules. And again, not making mistakes isn’t the goal. When we make mistakes, we want to be humble, seek repair, and do better next time.
Seeking Professional Help: If you need support to learn how to fight constructively with your partner, working with a skilled couples therapist can help you learn and practice the tools needed to feel more connected to your partner. To find out more about couples therapy, please call or text 317-747-0574 or visit our contact page.
Disclaimer: The information provided on this blog is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace professional psychological care, professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.