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What to Do When You Can't Get Out of an Argument

Being stuck in fight or flight during conflicts can ruin marital satisfaction.

In a perfect world, no one would ever need to put off a difficult conversation with a significant other. We would be Zen-like all the time, sensitively speaking from our hearts. We would steer clear of accusations, and be crystal clear on what we want to have happen next. We would be stellar listeners and paraphrasers eager to make things right with the people we love the most.

But the world is not perfect, and we are very human.

Tabling a topic about which you are extremely angry, or “putting it off until your higher self can take the lead,” can be an effective tool to resolve conflicts without escalating them. As the Gottman Institute found:

"[T]he more 'diffusely physiologically aroused' (in other words, in “fight or flight” mode,) someone is during a conflict conversation, the more his or her marital satisfaction is likely to decline during a period of three years."

When angry, we often experience a primal urge toward fight, flight, or fawn:

  • In flight, we may storm out, passively-aggressively sulk, withdraw, avoid, ignore, or separate.
  • In fight, we may shout, accuse, shame, or blame. We may belittle, bring in issues from the past, or say hurtful things we don’t mean.
  • In fawn, we give in to deflate the conflict (usually without getting needs met).

Tabling an issue means purposefully not talking about it until you're able to remove yourself from fight-or-flight mode and are able to bring in some calm, wisdom, clarity, or compassion. Tabling an issue can give you space to listen to how you feel, compose what you’d like to say, and identify what you’d like to see happen next (before you talk with your partner).

Tabling Can Be Helpful for Anyone

Tabling appears most effective for people who have hot tempers, but it has the potential to help anyone. Even if you don’t have a temper, you will likely benefit from a few deep breaths that bring mindfulness and curiosity to your feelings before you express them. Here are 3 guidelines to follow when you table a dispute:

1. You Both Need to Commit. If only one person wants to table an issue, but the other still wants to talk about it now, it can be frustrating, uncomfortable, or even make things worse. For tabling to work, you and your partner should both be on board with it as a tool to help you be more effective and kind during a disagreement. You can even have a code word that means, “I really want to talk about this respectfully with you, but I just can’t right now because I’m too angry.” When one person says the code word or phrase, it’s up to the other person to give their partner space without continuing to argue or poke at them.

2. You Can’t Table for More than a Day. The purpose of tabling is to calm down, reflect, and be able to discuss a “hot issue” with respect and without causing further damage. However, if you let it go too long, you risk never getting back to the conflict. By waiting too long, you also may make the issue bigger than it is. You may need a few minutes. You may need an hour. You may need to sleep on it. But at that point, at least try to work it out.

3. You Must Try to Find Some Resolution. After tabling, speak from your heart and take turns. Speak with respect, stay on the topic at hand, and remain calm. Make a plan as to what will look different moving forward. Reflect on how the experience of tabling went for you—did it help you calm down and get a clearer head? Was it uncomfortable? Was it easy or hard to give your partner space? How was your conversation different? Were you able to resolve the issue lovingly in the end? How would you tweak things for the future?

Relationships are everything. Any tool we have to minimize harm, bring in peace, and lead us even closer to loved ones is worth taking a look at.

Erin Leyba, LCSW, PhD, author of Joy Fixes for Weary Parents (2017), is a counselor for individuals and couples in Chicago's western suburbs Sign up for email updates on tools to build personal or family joy or follow her on Facebook or Twitter.

Copyright Erin Leyba, LCSW, PhD