Effective Ways to Reduce Conflict While You Stay at Home with Your Loved Ones: Part One
How are you feeling about being home? Are you with your partner? If you have children, are they there too?
As I am sure you know, Shelter in Place and Stay at Home orders have impacted most of us. But I wonder if you are aware of how much energy you are expending trying to adapt to new routines and habits?
It can feel overwhelming, because it is. And that emotional overwhelm can stress your connections to others, particularly when those connections are 24/7!
Togetherness can be a wonderful thing. But if there were unresolved issues in your relationships beforehand, they will surely come to the surface now that you are in the same physical space for extended periods of time. Of course, even without underlying issues, the added stress can cause problems that might not have existed before.
Is that happening for you?
Are you feeling more irritable than usual? Having more arguments than is typical? Or have you retreated from interactions with others because they feel too complicated? Are you hiding behind your laptop or smart phone?
If your answer to any of those questions was “yes,” you are not alone!
There are a lot of couples in crisis today. Since the Stay at Home orders went into place, there has been as much as a 50% increase in calls for help to police and domestic violence hotlines.
And while you might never cross the line into violence, most couples and families are experiencing at least some increase in conflict. Given that it’s harder now to leave your home when you need to cool off, it’s crucial that you know how to deal with conflict in ways that not only de-escalate contentious situations, but also create more understanding and heart connection.
After all, the best result we can aim for during the global pandemic, is MORE love, not less of it.
That’s why we need tools that REALLY work to help us resolve conflicts in ways that don’t just push them under the rug, but instead heal the hurts and connect our hearts.
How can you learn these skills? And access such tools?
I have decided to share my top four fixes for conflict in a series of articles just for you. I not only teach my clients these techniques, I also live them in my daily life and both my partner and I are deeply grateful for them. Time and time again, we both find that they really do work wonders!
Each article will provide you with step-by-step instructions, and will come with a companion video. My goal is to lighten your emotional stress, and to help you and your loved ones enjoy each other more.
It’s best if you start practicing these techniques BEFORE you experience conflict in the home. That way, you will have healthy habits to rely upon when you feel stressed, angry or afraid. And you’ll have safe and emotionally positive steps you can take when things feel negative in your connections to those you love.
After all, the best result we can aim for during the global pandemic, is MORE love, not less of it.
Here are the topics I will be covering in this four-part series:
1. How to Take Timeouts that Really Work
2. How to Increase Empathy for Yourself and Your Loved Ones
3. How to Assert Boundaries that Create More Connection
4. How to Achieve Partnership When You Disagree
How to Take Timeouts that Really Work
There are times when our best efforts at communication and connection break down. For those times, it is essential that you have an agreed upon format to keep things from escalating in the wrong direction.
Taking timeouts, in my experience, is a tool that can save you and your loved ones a lot of suffering. And I have put it first on the list because it creates the foundation of safety we all need. Think of it as your parachute. It is the back up system that will keep you safe when all else fails.
Although many people have heard of timeouts and might even be doing something they consider a timeout, not many people actually know how to take a timeout that works. And it turns out there are reasons for that.
The Biggest Reasons Timeouts Do Not Work for Most Couples
First of all, a timeout does NOT mean walking away, disappearing for an indeterminate amount of time, and then reappearing without saying a word. That’s not taking a timeout; that’s just avoiding the conflict. Not surprisingly, most people experience these behaviors as a way of controlling the conversation and they will resent it.
If your partner feels that you’re trying to control him or her, and does not feel that you’re taking care of the relationship, this greatly increases the risk that your timeouts won’t be honored. If someone feels controlled or manipulated by your timeouts, they’re more likely to keep talking (or yelling as the case may be). They’re also more likely to chase you around the house in an effort to finish saying what they want to tell you. This is a very common pattern in the couples I work with. And of course it’s counter-productive, and amounts to no timeout at all.
And even if your loved one gives you space when you walk away, nothing is accomplished if they still feel frustrated and resentful because you have no agreements to return to the unresolved topic after you’ve had time to cool down.
Of course, it’s better to leave before you say or do something destructive. Simply walking away IS preferable to staying in the conversation until you lose your cool. But it does nothing to preserve or repair the connection with those you care about.
That’s why learning to take the kind of timeouts that really work to help your relationships grow and heal is so very, very important.
The second biggest mistake many make is taking timeouts, and then failing to follow up on the topic they interrupted when they took a timeout. Needless to say, this version of timeouts, although very common, does not work to build trust or intimacy. Instead it allows ever-increasing levels of frustration and distrust to develop.
Just as you need your loved one to hear you and to understand what you’re experiencing and needing, so, too, does your loved one need you to hear how they feel and what they want. If you take a timeout, but don’t follow up and give them a chance to be heard, you will breach their trust and create an emotional disconnect between the two of you. Remember, when you take a timeout, your loved one will have to stop expressing something they feel is important. While you are on your timeout, they are still waiting to feel heard by you.
Just as you need your loved one to hear you and to understand what you’re experiencing and needing, so, too, does your loved one need you to hear how they feel and what they want.
It is crucial to offer people you care about the opportunity to be heard. And of course you also need to be heard by them. The conversations that follow a timeout can bring you closer and create more intimacy and trust, so make sure you don’t avoid the topic that led to your timeout. The idea isn’t to sweep the unresolved topic under the rug. The idea is to take some time (out) to regain perspective, to remember that you love each other, and to find the calm and the courage that it takes to be less defensive and more compassionate.
A timeout has very specific stages to it and if you omit any of them, your partner and family will probably develop contempt for your “timeouts,” and that will unfortunately likely lead to even more conflict in the long run.
Taking successful timeouts is a gift to you as well. It gives you the assurance that you don’t need to stay present for a conversation when you can’t bring your best self to it. It is a healthy way of asserting a boundary while still honoring the relationships that matter most to you.
Here are the specific steps to take in order to maximize the benefits of timeouts:
The Best Way to Take a Time-Out
1. Agree to the terms of your time-outs BEFORE there is conflict. You and your partner (and other family members), need to know what to expect when a timeout is called. If there isn’t a common language and understanding around timeouts, you can expect a lot of confusion and frustration for everyone concerned. For instance, your partner (and the rest of the family) might wonder how long you will be on a timeout. For that reason it’s a good idea to agree to a maximum time (2 hours for instance) for timeouts. That doesn’t mean the timeout needs to last that long. It just lets everyone know that it won’t last longer than the agreed upon time limit.
2. When your partner or family member calls a timeout, resist the temptation to say more. Stop talking and honor the time out. Your partner or family member needs to stop talking before things get out of hand. You both should step away and engage in self-nurturing. Plan ahead what you will do during a timeout to care for and soothe yourself. When you call a time-out, do so calmly and without explanation. Simply say “I am taking a time-out.” And then walk away so you can regain perspective and calm down.
3. Use the time-out to reflect on your feelings and your part. This is not a time to take the other person’s inventory and call your friends to tell them how messed up your partner or family member is. Nor is this a time to use alcohol or drugs to numb the pain. Get in touch with your feelings by writing them down, crying them out, or whatever enables you to find a more centered and less reactive place. Of course they made mistakes. But in all likelihood, so did you. The point of a timeout is not to sharpen your judgments, but to find more peace, and to do that, it helps to focus on the one thing you can change in this life, which surprise, surprise, is you. And it helps to do something nice for yourself! That might seem counterintuitive; but even if you said or did some things you feel bad about, the best way to turn things around is to find ways to be kind to yourself, so you can then extend that empathy to others.
4. Once you have re-established contact, agree to a time when you will resume addressing the issue(s) that catapulted you into conflict. Don’t make the mistake of taking a time-out simply to stop a conversation you don’t wish to engage in. Follow up and follow through. You, your loved ones, and the love you share deserve the respect of having closure, so work toward that common goal. If you find that you still aren’t ready to resume the conversation from a more positive place, say so, and then make a date when you will be available to resume that topic.
5. It is essential that the person who calls a timeout announces when they are off their timeout, and offers to resume the conversation they interrupted when they took their timeout. This will make it clear to both the person who called the timeout and the person who honored the timeout, that timeouts are NOT being used to control or avoid conversations.
Practice Time-Outs When Everything is Going Well
I cannot overstate how crucial this is. Under stress the brain reverts to the reptilian brain (amygdala) that has NO access to the prefrontal cortex (the adult, decision making part of the brain). The more primitive part of the brain can only perform fight, flight, freeze or fawn. If your habit is to fight, then when you’re upset, that is what you will default to. But if you have persistently built the habit of taking timeouts when you have access to your prefrontal cortex, that habit will guide your actions when you’re under stress.
This is why first responders, soldiers and emergency personnel practice their maneuvers over and over again — because they know that without that practice, their brains will revert to fight, flight, freeze or fawn under duress, and then the necessary actions will not be performed. For this reason, please practice your timeouts when things are going well. It will serve you when you actually need to take a timeout!
If you have any trouble with these tools, it might help to have a third party who is experienced with the process guide you a few times until you get it.
These are just three of the many techniques I teach the couples I work with so they can enjoy each other more fully. If you’d like my help, location is no barrier. I do this work over the phone and online. Just drop me an email.