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Sally Connolly, LCSW, LMFTSally Connolly, LCSW, LMFT
A blog about mental and emotional health

Discover Ways to Stay Calm and Remain In Difficult Discussions

Sally Connolly, LCSW, LMFT Updated: May 6th 2011

Every couple has differences. Some of those issues need to be discussed while others will work themselves out over time.

While there may not need to be a reason to fight about the differences, there are certainly reasons to have discussions and figure out ways to handle problems when you disagree.

fighting coupleWith volatile couples, those who are quickly triggered and have trouble avoiding a fight, it is important to signal ways to recognize when either partner is getting flooded and take a time out so that they can calm down before having any kind of conversation about their disagreement.

With couples, or maybe just half of a couple, who are more likely to run away from any disagreement, it is also important to recognize that the urge to run also comes from feeling flooded. If you give yourself or your partner the time to calm down, then it is likely that you can find a way to talk about the problem.

Learning how to identify and calm yourself is a skill that can be learned.

1. Name and claim what is happening to you. The first step in learning how to stay calm is just to “name and claim” the flooding response. Notice when your heart starts to race, your head starts to hurt or you feel a knot in your stomach.

2. Decide together, in a calm moment, what to do when you need a break. Use the same words and even a hand signal that indicates a need for a time out. If not, couples will often say things like “you are too unreasonable, I am not talking to you right now” or “the way you are behaving right now is …” .

Using words like “I am flooded and need a time out” or “This conversation is too heated and I need a time out” are more neutral and more likely to allow the break to happen.

3. Take the time out. At the first sign of flooding, let your partner know that you need a time out. Be as careful and considerate as you can when telling your partner that you need a break. She, or he, will immediately believe that you are dismissing their needs and may have a hard time of letting go of the argument so make sure that it is clear that this is so you can respond more thoughtfully rather than running away. Be careful and clear about what you need and then move away. End the discussion for the moment.

4. Allow your partner to take a time out whenever he or she needs to do that, even if you do not think that you are flooded yourself. Hopefully, the goal that you have for the discussion is to get heard and respected. You have a much more likely chance of doing that if both of you are calm when talking.

5. During the break, acknowledge what is happening (the flooding), tell yourself that you need a break BEFORE you think any more about the disagreement and get busy doing something else. Take a walk, read a book, play with your child, anything to get your mind off of the argument and calm your heart rate. Expect for it to take about 30 minutes, after you stop thinking about the conflict, before you or your partner are ready to talk again.

6. Check back in. It is best if the person who asked for the time out is the one who checks back in to see if the conversation needs to continue.

Practice makes it easier. The steps will feel awkward and artificial at first. Over time it will make discussing differences and hard subjects much easier.


Sally Connolly, LCSW, LMFT

Sally Connolly, LCSW, LMFT has been a therapist for over 30 years, specializing in work with couples, families and relationships. She has expertise with clients both present in the room as well as online through email, phone and chat therapy. She has written numerous articles about solving couple and relationship dilemmas. Many of them can be found on her website, Counseling Relationships Online, or her blog, Relationship Dilemmas.

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