Have you ever felt overwhelmed by intense emotions and found it hard to think clearly when you are in a heated argument with your partner? What do you and your partner usually do to cool down so both of you could call back your rational mind to resolve conflicts?
Some people are speculating that divorce rate may go up after the COVID-19 outbreak, as couples might be having more fights staying together 24/7 in a confined space. Learning to take a compassionate break and give each other space (both mentally and physically) might be helpful for couples to ease through the tough time.
In couple/marital relationships, we may find one “chaser” and one “runner” (though not in all couples). When conflict or disagreement arises, the “chaser” wants to solve the problem (either real or perceived) right here right now, whereas the “runner” wants to flee away (either from the problem or from the intense emotions). The famous “time-out” strategy is usually favored by the “runner”, not the “chaser”, and if the strategy is mis-applied in a cold and mechanical manner, it may backfire and lead to more resentment, bitterness, and even a sense of rejection in the “chaser”, making the subsequent conversation more difficult.
How to take a break or time-out during a heated argument? The “how” is more important than the “what”. Here are 3 steps you may want to consider:
The first step is not easy: to notice your intense emotions and take a pause, or agree to take a pause, in a heated argument with your partner. In order not to misinterpret the “pause” as a sign of avoidance or refusal to talk, both of you need to have some prior discussion and consensus on this “pausing game”, e.g., agree on gesture of “pause” and place to take a compassionate break, either together or separately. For example, you could invent your own couple gesture to signal “pause”, and once the “pause” is signalled, you and your partner, as agreed beforehand, would go to your own soothing place to practice a self-compassion break, or practice it together in silence.
2. Practice self-compassion break*
Once you settle in a quiet and undisturbed place (it is good to shift out of the “battle” scene), slow down your breath, put a hand or two hands over the heart or elsewhere as an expression of kindness and compassion, send yourself an inner smile if you could, and silently repeat to yourself in a gentle tone:
- “This is a moment of pain. I know it hurts.”
This is the mindful awareness, to acknowledge intense emotions and allow the emotional wave.
- “Pain is part of any relationship. My partner is also experiencing pain at this moment, the same as me.”
This is a broadened sense of common humanity, to reduce the tendency to blame yourself or your loved one
- “May I be kind to myself”
May I be kind to my partner;
May I give myself the compassion that I need;
May I give him/her the compassion that he/she need.”
This is the deep wish to be kind to yourself and your loved one. We’re not just taking a break, but taking a compassionate break to re-orientate the state of mind from a blaming stance to a more caring stance.
3. Positive response
After shifting the mind gear to a more caring mode and when you feel ready (only when you feel genuinely ready, this is important), send your partner a positive signal – a smile, a caring and warm phrase, or a gentle hug, as an expression of willingness to reconnect and resume constructive conversation. However, do not rush, if your partner is not ready yet, continue to wait with kindness and understanding.
*Step 2 is modified based on the self-compassion break, an informal practice designed by Christopher Germer and Kristin Neff in their Mindful Self-Compassion programme. If you are interested to find out more, do check out their self-help book: