When we get angry or are in heightened conflict, we lose the ability to think complexly. This process is commonly referred to as the fight-flight-freeze response, which is the body’s automatic, built-in system designed to protect us from threat or danger. The fight-flight-freeze response developed early in human evolution and continues to impact our psychology today. While this response was helpful when we were running away from predators as early human beings, it’s less helpful when we are having complex interactions with our partner. It’s important for all couples to recognize when they are angry, as this can trigger their flight-fight-freeze response. Taking a break is one-way couples can reduce this response and be better able to navigate complex discussions.
Any partner at any time can ask for a break. Remember, it’s important to tell your partner a) you need a break, and b) when you will return. Unless your safety is at risk, never leave a partner without telling them when you will return. You may need to take multiple breaks throughout an argument – that’s OK, just ensure you follow the same process each time.
Using the 20-minute break wisely…
Starting a Break:
Begin by letting your partner know you need a break by saying “I need a break; I’ll be back in 20 minutes”. It’s important to always let your partner know how long your break will be and when you will return.
Spend the first 10-15 minutes on a task that’s unrelated to your conflict. Read a book, listen to an uplifting song, or read a magazine. Focus on an activity that is either relaxing or pleasurable.
Spend the last few minutes reflecting on what primary “hurt” emotions you want your partner to better understand (avoid simply using Anger). Think about how you might communicate these emotions using an “I-statement”. Also spend some time being curious about how your partner may have understood the conflict. To gain greater insight into your partners experience, try to imagine their life “as a movie”, in which you are only a “secondary character”. Now imagine how their movies “narrator” might describe the conflict from your partners perspective.
- Try your best not to use breaks as a “rebuttal” or as a punishment.
- Avoid spending your break thinking about rebuttals or “who’s right”. Instead, focus on relaxing your mind and body.
- If you find yourself returning to the same problem repeatedly, this is a good sign that you might benefit from couples therapy to deal with the issue.
Remember: Breaks will not solve every problem, but they should help you think more clearly about the ones that do occur.
Try your best!
Joshua Peters is a Clinical Psychology Doctoral Resident and Registered Psychotherapist (RP) with the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships, Ottawa. Over the past decade, he has presented at several notable conferences, including the Guelph Sexuality Conference, the National 2SLGBTQ+ Service Providers Summit, and the Community-Based Research Centre’s Atlantic Regional Forum. Joshua also regularly contributes to online, radio, and television news stories for the CBC, Global News, the Toronto Star, and other organizations. In his clinical practice, he is particularly interested in providing psychotherapy, mental health research, and advocacy for the 2SLGBTQ+ community — especially for those from rural and other marginalized backgrounds. Joshua has obtained a specialization in Psychology at the University of Ottawa, a Master of Arts in Counselling at Saint Paul University, and is currently completing his final year in the Doctorate in Clinical Psychology at the University of Prince Edward Island under the supervision of Dr. Aleks Milosevic and Dr. Lila Hakim.