In my work as a couple’s therapist, one of the more useful skills necessary for maintaining a healthy, thriving relationship is the skill of disengaging from a fight—disengaging from an argument. It’s a kind of a ‘time out, let me cool off, let me not say things I can never take back, let me listen and be present to what is happening and being said, let me be the grown up here’ behavior.
Disengagement is a skill that works in situations where tempers and emotions are heading in an out of control direction and oftentimes, we think we have to argue and defend ourselves when in fact the rational thing to do is to stand back and think rather than react. We get caught up in yet another argument with no resolve when in fact we do have a choice. Someone is yelling at you and you are about to yell back, think about stopping dead in your tracks and saying “ No, I’m not having this argument—at least not now.”
Disengagement means taking time to think about how you behave when you are angry and think about a new approach. It means becoming ever mindful for the next time and allowing yourself the option to stop talking, stop screaming, stop arguing period—think first. Way before you are in that situation, give yourself permission to disengage—give yourself the choice about whether to argue. It means literally stopping dead in your tracks and allowing the other person to say what they have to say without interruption on your part. It takes two to argue and as soon as a discussion begins turning into an argument when yelling, screaming, and hurtful words begin, much is at stake in the relationship. When tempers and emotions are heated, all objectivity is lost and the goal is usually to make your point and be heard. Never is one in a worse position to be heard and to make a point when both are competing for the very same objective. And in winning the argument you begin the descent of undermining the relationship in an irreparable way. It is the “thinking ahead and planning to disengage” that helps in resolving conflict in the long run.
So how is it done—how do you disengage?
- Remind yourself that you do have a choice about whether or not to engage in an argument.
- Stop dead in your tracks remaining silent when you sense that once again, a discussion is heading in a bad direction.
- Give yourself a moment to think before you say more.
- Plan to revisit the issue at a time when both of you are more calm and in control.
Stopping dead in your tracks when you are about to yell and angrily make a point goes a long way toward a peaceful resolve. That’s not to say that you will not have your chance to be heard—just not now. Rather than giving in to the heat of the moment and creating an atmosphere of dissent, waiting to be heard when a person is receptive is a better goal than engaging in a power struggle where no one wins. The realization that there is no way the other person really hears you when you are screaming is a huge insight.
It is human nature to become defensive when you are being attacked. When a discussion heads into argument territory, it is unlikely that what you have to say will register with the other. Reminding yourself to “disengage” gives you a chance to listen and pay attention to what is happening and to decide whether this is an issue worth pursuing. And if so, discussing rather than arguing leads to a more reasonable outcome. And that is only possible when one is in a less emotional place. In any worthwhile relationship, there is time to revisit the issue and learn to talk through it rather than scream through it with little chance of being heard or resolving the issue. Until that point, “disengage” and wait for a better time and better way to say what you have to say. Your relationship depends on it.