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How do I notice whether I need a break?

I’ve already admitted that this is one of the relationship skills I struggle most with, but on the plus side that means it is one I’ve given a lot of thought to. We all have a default when it comes to breaks in conflict. Some of us default to thinking that breaks are an excellent idea when we are overwhelmed or unable to be present with a partner in conflict, and are able to ask for them when we need them. Frankly, I’m envious! I wish I had that default setting, and I’m working towards it, but it feels like it is taking a LOOOONG time. If this is you, give yourself a pat on the back. It may be that this post won’t teach you a lot. 

The rest of us, myself included, default to not taking breaks, even when we are very distressed or overwhelmed. Some would sooner internally check out while remaining physically present (stonewalling) than ask for the break that we need. Or perhaps we are just so upset that we can’t imagine anything getting better without finding a solution. These feelings might come from trauma, poor role models from caregivers, rejection sensitive dysphoria, or our relationship history. Sometimes a combination of these factors – after all nearly everything is biopsychosocial. Delving into the reason you find it so hard to know when you need a break can be really useful, but it can also be helpful to find prompts that help us to take more effective action. 

I suggest that if you’re a person that defaults to ‘no breaks’, that you consider whether it would be effective to switch that up, and default to ‘I need a break’ if you experience any of the following:

  • Your heart rate is unusually elevated (for me, if it is over 90, consider putting a number on it for yourself).
  • You get hot
  • You feel butterflies
  • You can see your partner is very distressed
  • You are more focused on your response than what your partner is saying to you
  • You are finding it difficult to pay attention to your partner or what they are saying
  • You feel fragile or breakable or broken
  • You can’t make or maintain eye contact (when usually this isn’t difficult for you)
  • Your speech is slower or faster than usual
  • You are raising your voice, even unintentionally
  • You have an urge to throw or hit things
  • You feel overwhelmed
  • You are experiencing a very intense emotion (8/10 or higher)
  • You are repeating yourself
  • You are crying a lot
  • You have the thought that the other person is blaming you
  • You are blaming the other person (either in your head or out loud)
  • You have the thought that you are being criticised
  • You are criticizing the other person or yourself
  • You have fixed negative beliefs about the reason for the other persons actions 
  • add your own here….

These are prompts that I try to use, or that other folks I know use. In truth, this list is most effective if it is really personal. While our physiological reactions are predictable across the human population (increases in adrenalin and cortisol in conflict, for example), the signs that we are distressed or overwhelmed vary a lot. We all have thought patterns, behaviours, urges and sensations that are the equivalent of a flashing red light on the dashboard to tell us that we are REALLY NOT OK. Working out what clues we get from our thoughts, urges, behaviours, and sensations can help us to know when we need to be taking time out. I invite you to take a look at the list above and pick out the items that are relevant to you. Use this as a starting point and round out your list of things that tell you when you’re not doing OK in a conflict. It can be helpful to keep the list somewhere you could grab it if you were having a conflict – perhaps you might want to keep it with your conflict agreement.

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