Calling Time-out on Fighting

On the list of unpleasant things, getting in a fight with your partner is right up there with root canals. There are few things as stressful, and there’s a good neurological reason for that. When we start fighting, our brain thinks we are in a life or death situation. We perceive our partner as a threat. Our pulse races to 100 beat per minute and above, our brain goes on high alert for anything that looks dangerous, and perhaps most important, our higher reasoning shuts down. This is our mammal brain, running on instinct, providing the classic fight or flight reaction that kept our species alive for so many years. But it’s not so helpful when we need to be performing complex mental and emotional tasks like listening without being defensive, or empathizing. Ending a fight in a helpful way is impossible when the mammal brain is in control. We have to learn to override the old system with our newer, more helpful neocortex. How do we do that?  

The first thing to do is recognize that a fight is beginning. Often we find ourselves going from calm to upset in seconds without realizing it. One of the biggest signs is a budding or fully developed disagreement. Any kind of debate or argument where you are in an adversarial position with your partner can blow up into a full-fledged fight in moments. This leaves you scratching your head thinking, how did that happen? The warning sign is the disagreement itself, but we rarely see it as such.  

It takes focused effort and time to practice noticing the warning signs of a fight. Until we get to that point, there are some important things we can do when we find ourselves in the middle of a fight. The best thing to do is call a time out, and schedule a time (at least 20 minutes later) to finish the discussion after the body’s fight or flight response has cooled down. The reason this is important is because when our body is overwhelmed and physiologically worked up (i.e., increased heart rate, sweating, or weight-on-our-shoulders feeling), it is very difficult respond to our partners in a healthy manner. Dr. John Gottman calls this being ‘flooded’. At this point, practice what Dr. Gottman calls self-soothing. Self-soothing is largely done by managing our thoughts. When we fight we tend to think distressing thoughts like “I don’t have to take this,” “They have no right to talk to me like this,” “It would be better to be alone,” etc. These thoughts continue to flood us with distressing emotions. Try replacing such thoughts with, “We’re just upset, and when we’re upset, we say things we don’t mean,” “Sometimes we fight, but everything will be ok,” “I’m safe, they’re not trying to hurt me, they’re just in pain,” etc. Having the presence of mind to think this way during a fight is not easy, especially when all evidence seems to contradict the soothing thoughts. But this is a vital step to master if you want to end fights once and for all. When you can control your thoughts and emotions, you will have the ability to see the big picture beyond the current problem, and understand the emotional need that is causing it.  

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Written by Kenneth Jeppesen, LAMFT, MMFT

Kenneth is a therapist at the American Fork Center for Couples and Families and is a licensed associate marriage and family therapist. He enjoys helping individuals and couples find peace and happiness and spends the rest of his time learning about everything!