Alright, everyone. Raise your hand if you’ve ever found yourself in the middle of an argument with your partner, feeling completely overwhelmed, exhausted, and over it. Okay, good. Now keep your hand up if, in those moments, you’ve ever felt yourself wanting to roll your eyes, throw your hands up, and just walk away. Maybe you walk into another room or perhaps you walk right out the front door for a walk or a drive to cool off and escape the fight. If your hand is up right now, you are certainly not alone. Walking away during a fight or disagreement is usually a way for us to self-regulate, but it can cause a lot of harm or confusion for our partners if we don’t do it the right way. In some situations, walking away can even have the opposite effect of our intention and end up prolonging a disagreement. Not fun! Arguing with the person you love is hard and uncomfortable, but also inevitable. That is exactly why we need to figure out some healthy ways to cope in conflict.
Before we talk about what to do instead of just walking away, we first need to understand why we want to walk away in the first place.
Why do we leave during a fight?
There are many reasons we might walk away from a fight. We might leave because we feel like we’re going to get stuck in the same communication cycle as always. We might leave because we don’t want to say anything we’ll regret later. We might leave because we feel fed up and can’t stand to look at our partner for another minute. Often, we leave because we’re just so overwhelmed that we feel like we can’t tolerate the argument for a moment longer.
When we argue with our partner, we sometimes get physiologically flooded. This basically means that our bodies go into fight-or-flight mode. When we become flooded during an argument, a switch gets triggered in our brain that yells at us to escape. Our bodies are really bad at knowing the difference between a lion and an argument about dishes with our partner, so the mechanisms triggered in each situation are essentially the same. While it’s wonderful that our nervous systems go into overdrive trying to protect us, it can be frustrating trying to solve any issues when we’re in a flooded place. In fact, when our bodies are flooded, it is hard to hear nuance in what our partner is saying and our capacity for creative problem solving takes a nose dive. Not exactly a great combination for working your way through a fight.
What do we do instead? Two words: Negotiated Breaks.
A negotiated break is an intentional and agreed-upon time-out from a conflict. The point of a negotiated break is to create space where we can step away from an argument to regulate so we can more fully show up for the conversation, for ourselves, and for our partner.
To take a negotiated break, try these steps:
- Breathe and try to ground yourself into safety.
Take a breath, remind yourself that you’re safe, and get ready to communicate clearly and openly. You can do this!
- Communicate your need and the intention behind the break.
Tell your partner that you need a break. Try saying something like: “What you’re saying matters to me. I am flooded and need a 30 minute break so I can stay engaged with what you’re saying. Let’s take 30 minutes apart, then come back and finish this conversation. I want to hear you.”
- Take a real break.
We recommend about 25-40 minutes, since that’s about how long it takes for your body to come back to baseline after being flooded. Conveniently, that’s about the length of a Netflix show.
- Come back together and discuss. This step is crucial.
At the end of the agreed upon time, come back together with your partner. If you can, take about 30 seconds to reconnect by making eye contact, holding hands, or sharing some reassurances with one another. Remember: You’re on the same team. Then return to the conversation from a more grounded and calm place.
Although the drive to leave the house during a fight or storm out of an argument can be tempting, using negotiated breaks can be a helpful way to honor our need for a break while maintaining safety in the relationship. The next time you feel yourself wanting to up and leave, try out these tips and notice how it goes!