Remember – conflict is not only normal in our relationships, it is inevitable. Every single long-term relationship you will ever be in (at work, school, home, or somewhere else) will experience conflict.
Conflict does not have to escalate to the level of an argument, but it’s normal if it does. Healthy relationships don’t avoid conflict – they handle it effectively.
Here’s one way I work with clients (individually or as a couple) when we’re trying to resolve conflict in a healthy way, without escalating to the point of saying or doing things that hurt one another.
Step 1: Check in with your body.
If you are emotionally overwhelmed during an argument it is very unlikely that it’s going to go well.
You might be thinking, “But Summer, it’s an argument! Of course I’m gonna be emotional!!”
You can be emotionally activated without being overwhelmed by anxiety, anger, or a shutdown response.
If you are highly anxious (to the point of feeling frantic or panicked) or if you are shutting down (numbing out, disconnecting from the conversation) – it’s time to take a break.
Step 2: Take a break if you need one (and discuss your system for this with your partner ahead of time).
I always recommend that couples have a word or a cue that gets across the following message:
I love you, this is important to me, and I can’t keep talking about it right now.
It’s important to prepare for taking breaks ahead of time because if one partner has an anxious attachment style, it can feel totally overwhelming to disconnect in an emotionally vulnerable moment. Your cue word or phrase should remind both of you that this break is to ensure that you are each able to stay connected to what matters to you during the conversation.
“I’m feeling overwhelmed and I need to take a break.”
“Let’s pause – I’m getting over-heated and I want to calm down before we keep talking about this.”
A cue word that breaks the tension like: flamingo, peppermint, or pause
Step 3: Use your break effectively.
When you’re taking your break, it’s not helpful to just stew in how upset you are before coming back for round two.
Instead, your break should be structured in a way that helps you regulate your nervous system to calm down your body.
This could look like:
Doing some movement – walking, running, jumping jacks, or yoga
Writing down what’s on your mind to get a more clear sense of what you’re trying to say
Talking to someone else about what’s going on
Doing deep breathing or other nervous system regulation strategies
Find what works for your body and brain and do that.
Step 4: Come back to the conversation when you are calm and present
When you’re feeling calm and grounded, you can come back to the conversation. Make sure you’re listening just as much (if not more) than you’re speaking and take more breaks if you need them.
To sum it up – breaks help you and your partner to stay connected to what matters when you’re having conflict.
At the end of the day, an argument that’s highly emotionally charged is not going to be productive. Taking a break to regulate your brain and body helps you to be fully in the driver seat of what you say and how you say it.
As a highly emotionl person, this is super helpful!