Conflict skills: Taking breaks in conflict

Two people on a bench facing in different directions.

There are few subjects more fraught than whether or not it is a good idea to take a break in a conflict. People have very strong opinions on both sides. Some people see taking a break as essential to their mental health, their ability to calm down and hear the other person, or their ability to have their boundaries respected at a difficult time. For others, staying in a conflict is necessary because they feel pausing is abandoning their partner or giving up on working together to find a solution, or they feel a pause means they will never be heard or be able to get their point across. 

For some folks, especially those with rejection sensitive dysphoria, pauses can themselves be excruciating and hard to initiate or accept. It can be incredibly difficult to move away from a conflict and allow your partner time and space to de-escalate their emotions when yours are so impacted by the disagreement. It can feel impossible to move away from rumination and towards coping strategies to help you reduce the intensity of your emotional activation. 

Despite the fact that breaks can be very hard to take, the Gottmans have some really good evidence that taking breaks is absolutely essential in healthy conflict. Many people that resist breaks do so because they feel like issues can be resolved if they keep going – but the evidence is that this doesn’t happen. When we are flooded with adrenaline and cortisol we aren’t able to really hear and understand what the other person is saying. We are also unable to communicate our own feelings and thoughts effectively. We are much more likely to get stuck in old patterns of response and to escalate conflicts. Breaks are a way of allowing people to reduce the chemical overload and emotional activation and to reduce stonewalling (where someone is physically present but unable or unwilling to engage in a conversation). While a break is really important to improving the chances of a conflict going well, you can’t just pause and not come back to the issue. That is straight up avoidance, and likely to lead to further conflicts and escalating distress. Rather, you need to set a time to come back together so that you can resume the conversation – after at least 20 minutes has passed. 

The good news is that there are skills that you can learn to make taking a break more manageable. I think there are 4 skills related to taking breaks in conflict, and we usually have different levels of competency at each one. They are:

  1. Noticing when you should take a break
  2. Communicating about the break – including how long it will be for and when you will return
  3. De-escalating your emotions during the break
  4. Soft starts when you come together again

I’m going to write a post on each of these, since they are separate skills that you can work on individually. Most of us will be better at some than others. I’m pretty good at 2-4, but I find 1 really really difficult. So difficult that I rarely manage it, despite working on it a LOT for several years. As such, I’m not saying that getting better at these skills is linear or easy. Nevertheless, working on noticing when I need to take breaks, even when I don’t manage it in the way I’d like to, has made it much easier to accept when others ask for a break and to accept that actually I probably needed a break too (even if I wasn’t consciously aware of that when my partner asked for one). So, when you read the following posts, I hope that you find that you’re great at some things and that you would do with working on other things. Try to hold your areas for development lightly, and not to judge yourself for not being perfect yet. None of us are!

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