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Fair Fighting Rules #1: Timeouts

In the communications area of the marriage therapy world we have a set of guidelines that are commonly, and somewhat comically, called “Fair Fighting Rules.” It’s a bit of an oxymoron, but I take it for what it is. I don’t usually go through a checklist of these rules with couples that want to work on communication, but if I can see where a particular rule would make a difference then I go with that one. One of the biggest ones that I usually end up starting with is taking a timeout as needed. Kind of like what you do with your kids, only this one is more or less mutually agreeable. This is different than somebody storming out of the room and slamming the door behind, saying very angrily that he/she is fine, leaving the other partner still very much wanting to talk about it. This means taking a structured, productive timeout so you can calm down and then try again. This means taking a breather. This means you might actually have to go to bed angry, despite what they might tell you in marriage ceremonies and Hallmark movies. The important part is that you structure it beforehand, agreeing beforehand on your pre-determined and mutually beneficial timeout rules.

Timeouts can be crucial. If you’ve been in an important relationship where your feelings are involved, chances are there has been a time when you said or did things that you eventually regretted. It’s probably because your emotions were heightened at the time. What happens when you are really worked up is that the emotion centers of your brain amp up and start working really hard, and they override the logical parts of your brain, much like how a powerful horse can ultimately take control from its smarter, though relatively smaller, rider when it gets worked up. In this state you might take on a more narrow-minded perspective that doesn’t allow you to see your partner’s opinion. The language parts of your brain start to go off-line, which means you might say stuff that you don’t mean and you might not say some stuff that you do mean. Your ability to empathize goes down, making it all about you. Your ability to strategize and see the bigger picture gets limited, which means you might only be thinking about the moment and not the consequences. You are in fight or flight, which can be destructive in relationship situations: there’s a reason that they don’t call it fight, flight, or compromise. When you get to this point you really just need to take a timeout, let the emotion parts of your brain slow down, let the logical, strategic parts of your come back online, and then come back together and give it another shot.

Whatever rules you decide on, the important thing is that you agree on what timeouts look like beforehand. Have a time limit on how long the timeout will last, and then agree to come back together when that time is up, even if it is just to say that you need another 15 minutes. Decide if you can stay in the same room, or if you need to be apart. Decide if both parties have to stay in the home, or if one can leave. If somebody leaves, decide what that entails, such as going for a short drive, or going for a walk but leaving your car keys and phone in the home. Decide if you’re allowed to vent to other people or not (be very careful with this one), and if you are, then decide who you can vent to you and what things you can and can’t talk about (be very careful with this one too). Decide what other activities can be done and what can’t. Whatever you decide it’s important that you be specific. Expectations are more likely to be met if you already have a specific, detailed plan in place beforehand, especially because when we get overly emotional we tend to go outside the lines anyway and sometimes make things up as we go. Especially if we’re feeling angry and vindictive.

So there’s a good place to start with the so-called Fair Fighting Rules. More to follow…

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