STOP Fighting and Take a Time-Out
Even in the very best of relationships, there are going to be disagreements. Sometimes those disagreements can escalate into an argument, and sometimes an argument can become a fight that can cause emotional harm. When voices are filled with anger, it can be difficult to prevent yourself from saying or doing something that can result in damage to your partner and your relationship.
It’s important to remember that whenever there is a conflict, the first goal should be to immediately STOP the escalation and resolve the conflict – not to “win” the battle – and potentially lose the war.
To help you do that, there is a very simple mindfulness technique. It is called S.T.O.P. and involves four easy steps to prevent or at least stop a potentially destructive situation from escalating.
Directions: Follow these steps in order the moment you realize that tensions are beginning to flare, you feel emotionally triggered, or your body goes into fight or flight mode:
- Stop thinking, doing, or saying something that may be escalating a situation.
- Take a Breath. Slowly inhale through your nose and exhale deeply – with your mouth open and your jaw dropped. Feel your breath all the way down to your belly. Doing this will help reduce some of your tension and help you think more clearly.
- Observe your experience in more depth, not only what you are thinking but also your emotions. Are you feeling anxious, tense, scared, angry, fearful, or confused? Notice where in your body you are holding tension (e.g., head, neck, shoulders, stomach, heaviness in your chest, rapid pulse).
- Proceed to try and determine what you need right now. Would you like support? Do you need to be heard without being interrupted? Would you like to be held? Do you need a time-out? Do you need to take a walk? Return when you feel calmer.
Take a Time-Out
So, what can you do if things continue to escalate?
Any ‘How I Met Your Mother’ fans here? Remember Lilly and Marshall? When they were having fights and things got too heated, they would call a “time-out” and resume the argument at a later time. This is absolutely acceptable…and very smart to do when a conflict starts to escalate.
Why is that? When emotions run high for too long, we are more likely to throw in the towel and say whatever it takes to end the fight, or worse, say something we don’t mean in very hurtful ways. If you don’t take a time-out, you might strike out at your partner by saying something that would do damage. Harsh words are like bullets – once you pull the trigger and the bullet strikes, it’s too late, and the damage is done. At that point, it is no longer a discussion.
Now it’s a fight.
So, yes, when needed, it is totally ok to take a time-out, and although not ideal, it may even be smarter to go to bed upset. Calm down. Sober up.
There is one requirement to make this successful: before you call for a time-out, you need to schedule a time to return to the issue you have agreed to focus on. This will assure your partner that you are not abandoning them or the conversation. You are simply taking a break to STOP the escalation of emotions.
If things get too heated, ideally, you need to have made an agreement with each other, IN ADVANCE, that one or both of you are going to walk away until both of you have calmed down.
Making this agreement with your partner limits the potential for doing emotional damage.
This can be as simple as agreeing to go in separate rooms to give yourselves some time in order to help de-escalate tensions. Sometimes it’s good to literally have a physical wall between the two of you so that you can cool off.
Not taking a time-out in the heat of the moment can lead to saying things where one or both of you are “hitting below the belt.” You want to avoid this at all costs.
The advantage of agreeing to take a time-out IN ADVANCE is that by walking away, you won’t be escalating the argument and wind up saying or doing something that could result in long-term and possibly irreparable damage to your relationship.
Some may say that taking a time-out is cowardly. I disagree unless a time-out is being misused to avoid dealing with something that is uncomfortable.
In these situations, taking a time-out to cool off is not cowardly. The opposite is usually true. It’s the intelligent and compassionate thing to do.
You will know when you are ready to re-engage when you have sufficiently relaxed, your anger has dissipated, and the tone of your voice is calm.
Note: Couples who commit to using the S.T.O.P. Method and who actively recognize when they need to take a time-out consistently report a reduction not only in the intensity of their disagreements but also a reduction in the number of arguments. Although multiple authors also report using this method, the origins of this method may actually be a part of the practice of Buddhism.
Here is a simple Time-Out Agreement that you can use to help with all of this. Feel free to download and print two copies, one for each of you.
I hope that this article was helpful to you. We all need help throughout our lives, and this may be one of those times. Please feel to contact me. I am happy to offer you a free 15-minute phone consultation to help you navigate through a difficult time.