Communicating around breaks – Part 1 – making agreements about breaks in conflict

Two people with backs to the camera looking out at a sunset seated on a metal barrier next to a road bike.

As I said in the first post, breaks are a controversial topic. That means that lots of people have really different views on whether or not breaks in conflict are even an OK thing to do. That means that there are two parts to communicating around breaks – the first is about having conversations that set breaks up in advance of any conflict. The second is the communication when conflict is getting overheated to initiate a break. 

Agreeing to take breaks in conflict within your relationship/s

This is going to be a SUPER easy conversation in some relationships, especially where you agree about the importance of taking breaks and their benefits. It is going to be much harder where you fundamentally disagree about whether taking breaks is an OK thing to do and/or how long you should be taking them for. In either case, finding a time to talk to your partner/s or close people when you are not in an active conflict is essential. When having this conversation, it is helpful to focus on why you’d like to introduce breaks, how they would benefit you personally, and the logistics of how they might work. This could include how long they would be, whether you’d go to separate spaces or not, what the purpose of the break is for you, how to re-initiate contact.

Taking breaks is really hard for some folks for lots of different reasons. It can be helpful to address whether breaks bring up discomfort or trauma from your upbringing; many of us were sent to the ‘naughty step’ or otherwise isolated if we were behaving in ways our parents or caretakers did not approve of. Recognising that this (or something else) might come up for one or both of you is important because it means you need to work on how to frame and initiate breaks so that they are separated from punishment. It can help to have safewords in your conflict, and/or shorthand for ‘I love you but I need to pause’. For some folks this will be helpful because they struggle to verbalise that they need a break, for others it might help because you put together a script that they can practice so that they are able to make it more accessible. Another strategy is to address critical or negative thoughts about the meaning of a break by writing cards / recording voice memos for each other when things are good about your hopes for what taking breaks will mean for your relationship and your conflicts. These could be exchanged and if someone felt abandoned or rejected as a result of the break they could go back to read the note to revisit the positive impact the break is hoped to have. 

A different difficulty with taking breaks is one that I personally face. This is that I typically withdraw into myself rather than voicing a need for a break. This means I’m really not able to engage with whatever my partner is saying, though I am physically present. This feels to me like a very self protective reaction, but it is also stonewalling. It is a way of playing at remaining engaged while not really being there, and that is a surefire way to escalate conflict with many other people. The Gottmans talk about it as one of the ‘horsemen of the apocalypse’ in relationships and conflicts. It spells disaster. Many folks that have this response of drawing into ourselves are doing so because we have experienced trauma and/or we haven’t had healthy conflict modeled for us. It can be difficult to find an alternative when this is a longstanding habit, because often it happens without us really noticing, and perhaps it feels safer than having or expressing a need. This means it is extra important to pay attention to the signs that it may be starting, or to the kinds of things that might prompt this reaction in us. Noticing the flashing lights on our emotional dashboard is especially important for those of us with this reaction, so if you’re anything like me I’d invite you to complete the exercise in the last post so that you have more awareness of the indicators that you need a break. When you’re thinking about the communication around it, you might need to start with a safeword or action, because it may be particularly hard to communicate when you are feeling somewhat disassociated. 

While it is tempting to agree that we will always be gentle and reassuring when asking for a break, this is rarely realistic. The whole point of breaks is that we take them when we are flooded with hormones and unable to think clearly or listen well. This is not a point in life where we are as generous and loving as usual. Committing to giving reassurance in a moment when we are feeling intensely angry, distressed, blamey / blamed, hurt or even numb is likely to set us up for failure, resentment, betrayal and/or disappointment. If you have a track record of being able to offer reassurance and generosity when at an emotional low point, and feel confident that you can do so in the future without being in a ‘fawn’ response or feeling forced or resentful, go ahead. For the rest of us mere mortals, it is usually more helpful to figure out a realistic plan for what we can do ahead of time to make taking breaks as positive for all involved as possible. 

A critical aspect of planning breaks is working out how long they should be. Our brains take a minimum of 20 minutes to calm down from the adrenaline and cortisone rush we get in conflict. This means 20 minutes is likely to be the minimum duration of a break for it to be effective. Because lives are complicated it can mean that we aren’t able to come back together to talk about things straight away after the 20 minutes is up –– after all, we might have work or childcare or other commitments to deal with. Nevertheless, when initiating a break it is critical to set a time/date for when you will come back to talk about it. Not doing this can mean that issues get swept under the rug to come back next time there is a conflict, and that breaks are used as an avoidance tool rather than to de-escalate and make conflict more manageable. 

I’d invite you to talk through with your partner/s whether you can commit to trying out breaks in conflict:

Identify whether there are any barriers to taking breaks (such as not thinking they are a good idea, historic trauma and/or feelings of rejection/abandonment).

Work out whether you can do anything to make breaks more accessible to all of you.

How could you signal the start of a break?

Do you have any agreements on how long they should be, or whether you need to move to separate spaces?

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