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Couples Skill: Take a Break and Prevent a Hurtful Mistake

It seems paradoxical that walking away during a heated discussion can help your relationship!

Walking away, or taking a break, can feel triggering and insulting to your partner.

However, taking a break during a heated discussion, when you feel overwhelmed, is a skill.

And, it's also a definite skill to allow the other person to take a break.

Taking a break can help deepen the connection and deepen your understanding of what is being said and felt during the communication.

Knowing when to take a break requires both parties to have:
  • maturity

  • knowledge about the effects of overwhelm and stress on the human body

  • heightened sense of self-awareness

  • ability to recognize when you are becoming flooded and are unable to respond

  • respect for yourself and respect for the other person

  • an understanding of the pursue-run dynamic

A bit about the biology of stress and the human body

When the human body gets stressed, a cascade of stress hormones are released that causes a whole list of physiological, psychological and emotional reactions to occur. The body temperature rises, the heart rate rises, the muscles tense, the jaw and face muscles tense. And the emotional brain begins to take precedence over the thinking brain. So, what you are thinking, feeling and saying are clouded by strong emotion and are probably not what you really want to think, feel and say in order to communicate clearly and constructively.

It takes at least 20 minutes for the stress hormones to be cleared from your bloodstream by the liver. Some people need more time.

The DBT STOP skill is useful for this occasion

You can use a variation on the DBT STOP skill to help you during discussions where your stress level rises.

It is a skill to be able to STOP

  • S - STOP

  • T- Take a step back...walk away for a while, let your stress reaction subside.

  • O - Observe what is going on inside yourself and outside yourself. Feel your heart rate your temperature come down and you breathing normalize. It will take at least 20 minutes for the stress hormones to clear from your bloodstream. Some people take longer.

  • P - Proceed mindfully, gathering your thoughts

The partner needs the skill to allow the person to take a break

When one person walks away / takes a break during a heated discussion, it is skillful for the other person to allow the break to happen. It shows respect for your partner, respect for yourself and is a good communication skill.

The pursue-run dynamic

Sometimes an emotional pursue-run dynamic can get enacted as the person perceives that s/he is not being heard. So, s/he starts to chase their partner around the room, saying something like, "Don't walk away from me! I want to be heard, I want respect, I want you to complete your sentences...." Etcetera.

This might be an insight into some of the underlying dynamics of the relationship.

This is also an enactment of the stress response. And this person needs to learn to take a break as well. This allows for both parties time to process what is being said and felt more deeply. And allows time for the body, mind and emotions to calm down.

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