Last night my wife left me …
… for a couple minutes.
We’d had a moment that turned into a disagreement, that turned into a fight, that was bordering on an all-out war, when my wife very wisely said “I think we need to take a break for a little while.” I handled the moment maturely, as always (I muttered a sullen “whatever”), and went to do a different room. Ten minutes later my wife came out, she apologized first (because she’s a better human than I am), and we resumed our disagreement, but this time with emotions lowered way down. Within 20 minutes things were back to normal and we both felt heard.
Maybe this is standard operating procedure in your marriage, and if so good for you, but my wife and I are both highly emotional verbal processors with a deep need to be respected (me) or understood (her). Because of this our fights often veer past the off-ramp of “peaceful resolution” and continue down the autobahn of “win the fight at all costs.” We’ve just recently been setting ground rules for when it’s time to say “I need to leave” during a fight. So if your marriage, like mine, tends to have fights go nuclear, here are 3 ways to know it’s time to “leave your spouse” (and then come back).
1. The Anger Sharks are Swimming
I stole that line from a movie I saw years ago called Anger Management. As I recall, the movie wasn’t very good, but there’s one scene where a guy listens to his basketball team lose the game and says the anger sharks are swimmmmming in my HEEEAD! That’s pretty much how I feel when my wife and I have been fighting for two long. The clinical term for this is an “amygdala hijack,” where your brain is literally incapable of making rational decisions.
You may go internal with it where no one can see, but most of us have an “anger shark” threshold where we’re no longer capable of controlling our feelings and shift into fight mode. A key part of fighting well is learning where that line is for you, and when you feel it getting close tell your spouse “and need to get away for a few minutes.”
2. The words “always” or “never” are used
Never use the word “never” in a fight. Always avoid the word “always.” Why? Because “never” and “always” are never helpful, and always gasoline on a fire. Any sentence that says “you always do _____” or “you never listen to me” or any other statement that smothers your spouse’s behavior under a blanket of absolutes is a sign you’re no longer talking about the disagreement, and have moved into labeling your spouse “bad” so that you can be “good.”
This never works, and it always (okay … usually) means it’s time to walk away.
3. Loud noises!
I was raised in a family dynamic that was simultaneously combative and emotionally repressed. There were a lot of loud fights, but an inability to articulate why we were angry. My wife grew up in a home that was equally repressed but where no one everraised their voice ever for any reason … ever. Our family of origins do not mesh well.
What I’ve discovered in my marriage – and I think most are like this – is that when I raise my voice during a fight my wife feels trapped in a corner and either has to retreat or go into survival mode by being louder. Ideally this would mean I just never raise my voice, but that pesky emotional repression I mentioned makes it hard for me to get on the front end of my anger and head it off.
What my wife and I have learned is that once we start getting loud, we need to retreat to separate corners before things get worse. Usually, after a break, we can cool off and resume talking at a quieter level.
The key in all of this – and it’s something I’m having to improve at – is to fight in a way that produces reconciliation, not a winner. By leaving, cooling off, and then returning to each other my wife and I are finally moving toward fights that are constructive, not destructive, to our relationship. And they could be that way for you too.
This article originally appeared at ThrivingMarriages.com.