Let's face it: In a relationship, when one or both of you get triggered, you're no longer master of what comes out of your mouth. So while your worst fears are up—of being abandoned or betrayed or unseen—it's not the time to work out what feels unworkable or even talk about feelings. It's time for both of you to bravely, temporarily, let each other go—and each go take care of yourself. This will work if (and only if) you have some prior agreements and strategies in place. Here are six solid guidelines:
1. Have a two-part agreement: You get to walk away, and you'll come back.
It's no good for one to exit while the other hurls accusations of bailing. You may both feel terrified that this is the end, but the relationship has a better chance if you get out of the pressure cooker before it explodes. Agree in advance that either has the right to call for a pause and you'll come back together when you're both calm and clear, restored to sanity. Otherwise, emotionally heated communication will prevail, and you may say things you can't take back.
2. Have a safe word.
When you feel safe and connected, establish agreed-upon language to interrupt or prevent a blowout. You've nailed it if it's simple and feels kind to both of you: timeout, reset button, damage control. It could even be something silly like pumpernickel or dragon breath, but make sure it works for both parties. With safe words, you're spared reviewing the importance of stopping, the potential damage if you stay, the promise you'll be back. You don't need explanations or exit strategies—just clear prior agreements, including agreed-upon words.
3. Bring it to now.
When you're triggered, it's not entirely about this scene or this lover. You're feeling echoes of past wounds involving any harsh critic or abuser. It could be a past love. It could even be an old, painful story you tell yourself when you're down. In your distress, you may swing from past to future—which you're not qualified to predict, especially from such a bleak state. "This won't work. You won't stay." That's not going to help you deal. Instead, just remind yourself that you're feeling triggered and not thinking straight. And then let it go.
4. Can't seem to stop talking? Turn the conversation inward.
If you haven't stopped talking, there's probably momentum—and you're struggling to slow down. When that happens, try voicing the inner thoughts that don't match the words you're speaking. Your words are likely about what your partner is doing, thinking, or saying. But inside, you're all about what's wrong with you.
Voicing your inner thoughts and feelings might sound something like, "I hear myself being awful to you. I hate the sound of my own voice. I kind of hate myself right now, and that's a bigger problem than why I'm mad at you." This shift in dialogue is a game-changer. It interrupts the momentum, gets you closer to truth, and lets you walk away as planned.
5. Throw in your best muddled shot at declaring love on the way out.
"I'm a mess right now, but I actually remember how much I love you. Part of why I'm freaking out is I want us to make it."
6. Prioritize soothing yourself.
Whatever you need to sort out with your partner, your main reckoning is with yourself. Something painful just got called up for you—so be with it. Calm yourself. Consciously direct your breathing into your raw chest or twisted gut. Drink water. Find your feet on the ground. Cry without telling yourself horrible things—just discharge the bad feelings. Place yourself in nature, where the story doesn't matter. Talk to someone who listens lovingly without stirring up drama. Don't try to figure it all out: Just soothe yourself.
It's important to state that none of this should be used as a justification or tool for staying in a relationship where there is physical or emotional abuse. If you feel like your partner ever crosses the line from regrettable to unacceptable, get support from a neutral third party. And don't reconvene with your partner because they're ready. Come back together when you're both realigned with self and mutually ready to reconnect.
Want more insight into your relationship? Find out the five things couples who stay together do every day and the ways your sex life can show you what's wrong in your relationship.