We all have certain issues or topics that really trigger us. Sometimes it’s just our partner’s tone of voice or the subtle (or not so subtle) way they look at us. When we get upset or angry we usually try to talk about it with our partner; we try to make them see our point of view and understand our feelings. The problem is that when we are really upset, that usually doesn’t go very well. We get angry, we start yelling and we don’t really listen to our partner. And they do the same. Suddenly the fight escalates and we end up feeling even more distant from our partner.
Why do we get into trouble?
When we get really upset, our mind goes into fight mode. This is actually a biological response – there is a part of our brain that is in charge of helping us deal with dangerous situations. When we are really upset with our partner that part of the brain tells us we are no longer safe. Once we are triggered like this we go into fight or flight (meaning withdrawing or running away).
In fight or flight we don’t have our full capacity. Our intellectual capacity is significantly reduced and our ability to empathize and really understand our partner’s point of view is substantially diminished. We end up saying things we don’t really mean and we are not able to understand our partner.
Taking a time-out
The best thing to do when you feel really triggered is to actually take a time-out. A time-out is a cooling off period where you take a break from the conversation and return to it (hopefully sometime soon) when you are able to have the conversation in a much more calm way. This is an important skill and there are a few guidelines on how to use it well:
1. Agree on time-outs – you have to make a clear agreement with your partner that you are going to use time-outs when you are feeling very emotional or escalated. It’s important that your partner understand your intention when you ask for a time-out, and that you are actually taking time in order to make the situation better.
2. Ask for the time-out clearly – if you find yourself feeling triggered, and you feel like the conversation is going the wrong way, it’s important for you to ask for the time-out transparently and say: “I want to take a time-out right now.”
3. Agree when you will talk about the issue – if you are the one that takes the time-out, you should clearly indicate when you are going to continue the conversation. You can say something like “Let’s talk about it in a few hours,” “Let’s talk about it after dinner” or “Let’s speak about it again tomorrow morning.” It’s really important to be specific, because then your partner gets the message that you are going to go back to talking about it and you are not just trying to avoid the conversation.
In the meantime, during the break, it’s important for both you and your partner to learn how to relax yourself and get a bigger perspective on the situation. Ask yourself – why is this issue so important to me? What am I really trying to tell my partner? And what are they trying to tell me? What does my partner think about this situation? This reflecting will allow the two of you to talk about your issue in a different, more productive way.
Gal Szekely, MFT
Founder of The Couples Center, Gal has a warm and practical approach that recognizes and honors the best in every person. Gal’s relationship with his wife is the source of inspiration for his commitment to helping couples create thriving relationships. Going through their relationship struggles made him realize how a committed relationship is the most important vehicle for one’s personal growth. Gal has a lifelong dedication to learning and growth and is trained in many different. Read More