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Fighting Fair: Do You Need a Timeout?

In my new blog series titled Fighting Fair, I will be offering several tips to help you and your partner manage conflict effectively and with less stress. Conflict is unavoidable. As I wrote in my last blog, you and your spouse are individually powerful, but that power can be used to address the problem, or it can be used to pull the marriage, and the family, apart. But is conflict a sign of a bad marriage? No, and yes. No, because conflict exists because you feel it’s necessary to stand your ground. Good! Some issues are just too important to ignore. And yes it’s an indicator of a relationship in poor health because you and your partner only know how to resolve issues with conflict. And that get’s old, quick. So the issue is not whether conflict is good or bad, but rather how the two of you handle the conflict. And this brings me to my first tip. When the conflict devolves into yelling, Put yourself in timeout, or permit your partner to.

I tell almost all my couples, “when yelling begins, communication ends”. Arguing does not involve yelling. Yelling is not okay. Rather, effective conflict management is ability to express your thoughts and feelings without believing you are absolutely right, and your partner is wrong.

Timeout means taking a break from the argument before yelling escalates. In arguments, your brain is releasing adrenaline and cortisol; one prepares you for fight-flight-or freeze and the other is a stress hormone, respectively. So, when you find your voice rising, your heart racing, and your thoughts are racing (as well as other symptoms), then you are experiencing a flood of those hormones in your body. Those hormones and the brain’s system of handling stress can effect sound judgement and may cause a person to yell, say hurtful things, and even commit hurtful acts. So, taking a timeout allows you to process that flood of hormones and stress away from your partner, who is likely experiencing the same physiological effects as you.

What is a timeout for adults? In couple’s counseling, I teach the couple how to detect within themselves the physiological symptoms of stress as the argument devolves into a shouting match. I then encourage them to come up with a word that either one can use during the argument as a way to announce a timeout has been called. I then teach that this time out is a nonnegotiable demand to take a break from the argument and physically separate from each other. Next, I teach the couple to pick a predetermined area they will each go to for at least 15 minutes which is not outside the house. That point is very important because leaving the house can feel like abandonment, which can definitely trigger greater stress. After the timeout has ended, both parties return to each other to determine if more time is needed or they are prepared to discuss the problem again.

For the sake of brevity in this blog, I’ll leave out the important details of how this tip is tailored to each couple. If you find that you and your partner argue too much and resolve too little, reach out to me for counseling at and let’s tailor a program for your marriage

. In my next Fight Fair blog, I will be discussing the powerful effects your words have on your spouse, and how damaging name calling is to your spouse’s self-esteem.

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