Q: My spouse and I are always arguing. It seems like a little thing can get heated really fast. How can we learn to communicate better?
Our arguments often come from an honest place of hurt and confusion; we just have difficulty getting those feelings out in healthy ways. There are plenty tid-bits and tools that could apply to this issue, but I'll start with one that I use with my couples all. the. time:
Take a Time-Out
When we get angry or upset, our brains stop working (in helpful ways, anyway). They begin moving into our defense mechanisms, and we either move towards shutting down or lashing out in some way. Problem with that (and you know this, already), is it ends up pitting us against our partner. Suddenly, we're no longer on the same team, and we can feel isolated, misunderstood, disrespected, or even abandoned.
But what if we could take one step - right before we get to that dividing zone where words can't be unsaid - and slow the whole process down? Give our brains a chance to chiiiilllll and approach the valid hurts in a way that would make our True Selves proud? Yes. It is totally possible. Here are the rules for The Time Out:
1. Calling the Time-Out
Is your tendency blowing up or shutting down? Maybe a combination of both?
Step one is to be aware of your internal temperature, so to speak. Are you going cold, getting ready to distance yourself from your partner in some way? This could look like shutting off your emotions, walking away, agreeing with everything they say just to stop the conflict, withholding affection...
Or, do you tend to err towards getting hot: not controlling your anger, criticizing your partner, lashing out, self-deprecating, using your tongue as a verbal dagger? Either way, know what your triggers are and be responsible for managing them. If you notice yourself going cold or hot, ask your partner for a time-out.
2. Managing the Time-Out
Respect the time-out. Do not pester your partner, ignore their request, or manipulate them into continuing the conversation. In calling a time out, your partner is trying to respect you. They are monitoring their internal systems and choosing to refrain from destructive actions.
In calling a time-out, your partner is trying to respect you.
Take a bit of space from one another. Discuss beforehand (when you are not in an active conflict) what is an acceptable form of "getting space." Are you comfortable with someone leaving the home and going for a walk around the neighborhood? Or is it safer to remain in the house, but perhaps retreat to another room? This needs to be agreed upon mutually.
3. Returning from the Time-Out
The person who calls the time-out must re-initiate the conversation once they have returned to a centered, True Self place (that is, able to engage in the conversation and manage the emotions that arise without using destructive defense mechanisms).
Discuss beforehand what an acceptable time frame to re-center. 24-hours is the maximum amount of time I would recommend. Some couples prefer to resolve conflict before going to bed. Some couples feel that three hours are sufficient.
In returning, let your partner know, "hey, I'm ready to continue talking if you are." Your partner also has agency here, and is free to say "alright, thank you," or "I need just a moment more. I'll come and grab you in a minute." Either way, you will both have the benefit of being able to be your best selves as you approach difficult or sensitive conversations.
This takes practice. If you're used to immediately going into a protective and/or dysfunctional pattern every time you argue, then it will require sweet will (and maybe intentional counseling) to get this new way of communicating into your "muscle memory." Have grace with yourselves. Take your time. You've got this.