Arguments are a normal part of healthy relationships, including the ones that are intensely emotional. When they become disrespectful, however it’s time to take a break. This can be a really important strategy for maintaining our cool and keeping an eye on solving the problem. Sometimes taking a break can lead to more fighting if not done properly. The problem tends to be in the way people take breaks, not in the break itself. If you need a break – by all means, take one! Just follow these simple rules.
- LET THE OTHER PERSON KNOW WHAT YOU ARE DOING (AND OWN IT)
Ever been in an argument and the other person just leaves the room, hangs up the phone, or says something ugly and then says they’re done talking? You probably didn’t feel too respected when it happened. In fact, it likely increased your anger. When you start to feel too heated or overwhelmed, respectfully let the other person know that you need some time to gather yourself.
Take responsibility for the break as well. This would sound something like, “I am feeling really upset, I need to take a break.” Avoid saying something like, “You are being ridiculous, I’m taking a break.” Blaming someone else for needing some space invites more arguing. Even if you feel the other person is being disrespectful, own your need for a break. There may be a time to address disrespectfulness, but right then may not be the most effective. At this point, all you are trying to do is calm the situation down.
- SUGGEST A TIME TO COME BACK TO IT
This is really important. Committing to restarting the discussion helps the other person know that you are not just trying to get out of the conversation altogether. It could be 15 minutes, after dinner, after the kids go to bed, etc. Whatever time you feel would be helpful.
Use this time wisely. Think through how you are presenting yourself. Is your message effective and coherent? Do you need to find a different way to verbalize what you are thinking and feeling? Do you understand the other person’s point of view? If not, what questions do you need to ask for a better understanding? What might be getting in the way of solving the problem?
- RETURN WHEN YOU SAID YOU WOULD
If you ask for a break, you have to be the one to reengage with the other person. Go back when you said you would. There may be some times when what you suggested isn’t long enough. You still need to go back at that time and let the other person know that you need more time to think, process, calm down, etc. If you don’t do this, your partner is likely to feel manipulated.
A common response I hear to these rules sounds something like, “I have tried those things before, but even if I ask for a break he keeps on pushing the argument anyway.” To this I offer two rules for anyone on the receiving end of a break request.
- IF SOMEONE ASKS FOR A BREAK, LET THEM HAVE IT – NO EXCEPTIONS
If someone requests some space, they’re doing it for good reason. They need to calm down and process the information. They are also often times wanting to avoid doing or saying something they will regret. Be respectful of that. You may want to get to a conclusion, but if they are not ready it will end badly. To keep pushing is disrespectful.
- DON’T BE THE ONE TO REINITIATE THE CONVERSATION
The person calling for the break needs to pick it back up. If someone asks for 30 minutes, don’t seek them out after 29 minutes and start talking. Allowing them to come back to the conversation at the appointed time helps you trust that they are committed to resolving the issue. It also helps them feel their request was respected.
There is an exception here. Let’s say your partner asks for a break until after dinner. You waited patiently and it is now the next day. It is appropriate to bring up the conversation, but do it as an invitation instead of instigating a fight. For example, “Hey, I know you said we would talk more after dinner last night, when would be a good time to pick this back up?” This keeps you focused on the original argument instead of starting a whole new one.
Finally, it is never too late to ask for a break. If you cross a line of respectfulness, do not feel like you missed an opportunity. Those are important times to ask for a time-out. In those cases, do two things: apologize for your words or behavior and follow the time-out rules above. You will avoid any further damage and show that you want to avoid being hurtful.
Taking a break does not solve the problem, but it does help people get there in times of intense emotion. It can also slow down the pace of the conversation, allowing more time to think and reflect. Sometimes, breaks are not enough. There may be situations that, despite your best efforts, just seem too difficult to resolve. In those cases, you may benefit from a third-party, such as a therapist or marital coach. If you feel this would be helpful, I would be happy to talk with you further. If I can’t be helpful, I am happy to help you find someone who can.