There are times when it’s best to keep your mouth shut. Like when you're tired, stressed, rushed, preoccupied, etc. Sounds good, but it can be tough to do. When our defenses and rational brain are about to go out to lunch, this is when we’re most vulnerable and it doesn’t take much to set us off. A parting shot from your partner as you head out the door – I hope you get for once get home on time; a seemingly sensible conversation about holiday plans – what should we do this Christmas? – quickly turns into WWIII – a surge of anger, talking about someone’s mother, that time is Mexico – it quickly goes ugly. The stops are pulled out, we’re talking about 2 year-old text messages, we’re making a seemingly bona fide case why the other should be committed as mental insane. There’s potential physical moves of pushing, finger wagging, slamming, throwing.
This is not good. A perfect storm, Everything quickly builds -- hitting old wounds and triggers, the bad timing, and both are going for the jugular. At a certain point a line is crossed, and both sides make it a fight to the finish – who is going to get the last word, who is going to get her way, who is going to..basically come out on top.
Even if you come out on top – you get the last the word, the other stuttered and doesn’t know what to say, or slams down on the table and walks off – there’s still emotional damage, things said that you really can’t take back, old wounds once again rewounded.
The problem here is the shut-down of prefrontal rational brain, the triggering of old unhealed childhood injuries, the inability to walk in a straight line let alone solve a problem as an adult. You need to cut the explosion off at the roots, namely at the emotional level. Somebody, in spite of all the drama, needs to shift gears (or parts of the brain) be the adult and keep things from melting down. Here are the steps:
As soon as you can tell you are getting upset, call a time-out. Time-outs are not surrender, they are about being responsible and realizing that the conversational car is going off the road. Ideally couples need to work out non-verbal signals to let the other know that he wants a time-out – referee T, throwing the kitchen towel up in the air. Saying, “I’m not talking about this anymore will invariably make the other guy go crazy – I’m not finished talking, you always cut me off – hence the non-verbal signal.
Set the timer. Within 3 seconds after calling a halt, set a kitchen timer – ideally those big white ones that tick. If you don't have one, get one. Set that puppy for 45 minutes and slap it on the counter. This is to let the other guy know that this is the time you're taking to cool off and when you will be coming back. This helps the other guys know you are not just walking away forever with the final word, but actually will be circling back to continue the uh...conversation.
Do whatever you need to do to not re-engage. By doing this you are breaking a pattern, and as is human nature, when you break a pattern the first thing the other guy will do is try to keep it going by ramping up what she does – throwing a deeper barb, call you a name, mention your mother, or that 10 year-old "thing" with your boss -- something, anything to get you back into the fight. Resist. Stay adult, do what you need to do not to re-engage. Lock yourself in the bathroom, in the car, drive away. Tough, but you know it’s coming. Stay steady.
Come back and try again. Try again means that after 45 come back and try to solve the problem as adults: “So we both got upset. Let’s try again. What I wanted us to fix was…” If you are still upset, if she is still upset, or if it all starts up again – “Your mother…” reset the timer. No problem solving when you are emotionally upset and don’t have a rational brain.
Reseach says that it takes men 3 times longer physiologically than women to calm down. That’s fine. You may have to wait till the next day to have the conversation. But have the conversation. Don’t just say you’re sorry and sweep it under the rug. When you are emotionally flatlined, try and solve the problem. And once that’s settled, talk about the talking – let the other guy know what to do or not do -- don't wag your finger, don't interrupt -- to keep the conversation from getting crazy in the future.
If you can’t settle or talk about the problem in a rational way, go get help. A counselor, your minister – not just to mediate but to help you both learn the skills needed to control the emotions, give you a safe place to talk things out, help you better understand what makes your partner tick.
Bad arguments can cause long-term bad damage to a relationship. Stop the pattern to heal the relationship.