How to Interrupt Bad Behavior and Prevent Relationship Erosion
By Debby Gullery
Every couple fights. It is inevitable. And everyone who is in a couple has experienced those moments of profound regret when they’ve said hurtful things to their partners. So, what can be done? How can we interrupt our bad behavior and prevent relationship erosion?
My suggestion is to take a break and stop the madness! This sounds simple, but it isn’t, because most of us get into emotional ruts and develop bad habits of communication. It’s hard to stop a heated disagreement once it gets started, but in order to preserve the connection between you, it is the first that needs to be done. The most sensible and effective thing to do is to stop when one or both of you gets defensive or upset and things start to escalate. I call it taking a Time Out.
Once implemented, this one technique can make a huge difference in the quality of your relationship. It’s effectiveness stems from two things: It allows a couple to work together as a team, and it interrupts unhealthy patterns of relating. Here’s how it works:
- First a couple has to work at recognizing the signs that either or both of them are getting out of control or becoming hurtful to each other.
- Next, as a couple, commit to saying, “We need a Time Out.” This is harder than it sounds—we’re not used to interrupting our fights when we’re in the thick of them. Also, a word of caution here: Never say “You need a time out”, even if this is what you think. It should always be phrased as a “we”. We’re in this together and we are both taking responsibility to prevent negatives from invading our marriage.
- Some couples like to come up with a verbal cue or gesture that signals the need for a Time Out, for those times when we’re in public or in front of our children. Something silly can be helpful to break the tension.
- Once we’ve called a Time Out, then we both need to do something healthy to calm ourselves down. We can do whatever helps us to relax, as long as we communicate it to our spouses. This prevents misunderstandings from arising. Some people like to go for walks, pray or meditate, exercise, shop or watch television. It’s crucial that we don’t use the time we’re apart to repeat the argument over and over in our heads. This only results in making ourselves more upset.
- Agree on when to have a Time In, and keep to it! Depending on our schedules and how upset we are, we may only need fifteen minutes to calm down. But we may be having an argument as we’re running out the door to work, and then we’ll need to schedule a time later that evening to begin again. No matter what, both partners need to commit to the Time In.
Using this technique reinforces that we are each responsible for our own behavior and that we can stop our feelings from escalating. It also says that we care enough about our marriage to stop the negativity before it gets out of control and one or both of us gets hurt.
Using a Time Out is also a kind and generous way to signal emotional flooding. With one simple signal, you can communicate to your spouse that, for whatever reason, you are about to lose it. And you know that if you stay in the conversation you are liable to say or do something stupid that you know you’ll regret.
Because you both care about your relationship and each other, one of you calls a Time Out to protect your relationship. And the other one unites with the request because you are a team! So, take a Time Out and stop the madness!
This article is adapted from Debby’s book, Small Steps to Bigger Love, which is available through HSA Publications and on Amazon. It includes a study guide for small group use. Debby is also available for individual and couple coaching and to teach workshops and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at https://www.debbygullery.com.