You and your partner are in the middle of a heated argument. Your partner tells you to stop because they want a break. But you keep going, since you can’t let things go. You think you have to resolve this right now. What’s the outcome? If it’s anything like what my clients go through there is most likely hurt, angry outbursts, regretful words, tears and maybe the silent treatment for hours or even days.
How do intelligent, rational people who love each other do such harm to each other? Because they’re not rational when they hit that “point of no return.”
When I ask my clients when this point happens, they can almost always tell me exactly when they lose their cool. And losing it is either continuing to battle or shutting down completely. Both are harmful to a relationship. When you say hurtful things in the moment, you can apologize for them later, but many of my clients find it difficult to let go what their partner said to them. And if you continue to shut down, there’s a good chance that you’ll slowly disengage yourself from the relationship. Trust and safety will erode over time. Communication itself can then become a problem – you may stop sharing important things altogether to avoid arguing.
Timing makes all the difference when it comes to effective communication with your partner. If you want to understand each other and resolve your disagreements, you have to be calm! Otherwise, you cannot fully comprehend what your partner is saying or even be able to empathize with him or her.
Also be mindful that you or your partner may have a higher tolerance for emotional discomfort, so just because you are still feeling fine during an argument, it doesn’t mean that your partner is. If he or she tells you to stop, you need to back off. Respect their need for space. Remind yourself that if you keep going, you’re going to do more harm than good. You both will benefit from taking a break to do something calming.
Now, people often worry that if they stop the argument, it will never get discussed again. Have a talk with your partner (when you’re calm!) about ground rules and expectations. Do you check back with each other in an hour to see how you’re both feeling? Do you resume the discussion within 24 hours? Who seeks out whom? You may need to play around and see what works best for your relationship.
Being able to put a pause on conversations that are getting out of hand is an important relationship skill. It will make a huge difference in having effective communication with your partner, even if you’re arguing.