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We Study Couples For A Living: Why You Should Take A 20-Minute Break During Conflict

Tense Couple Eating Breakfast Together
Image by iStock
July 27, 2021

Conflict itself does not mean your relationship is doomed. On the contrary: It can be healthy for couples to have arguments! It's how you manage said conflict that matters. How do you talk to each other when you're angry or upset?

In a perfect world, you would approach your disgruntled partner with calm, I feel statements and everything would come up roses. But in real life, conflict isn't so cookie-cutter: Sometimes you get angry, things get heated, and it can be difficult to hold back from blurting hurtful things. Oftentimes, those productive methods to deal with conflict fly out the window. 

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Psychologists John Gottman, Ph.D., and Julie Gottman, Ph.D., founders of the Gottman Institute (and arguably the world's leading relationship experts), know that this happens—in fact, they suggest on the mindbodygreen podcast that you take a 20-minute break when you lose your cool, then come back to the conversation with a fresh mind. Below, they explain the science involved. 

What goes on in your brain during conflict.

Did you know that your brain can shift into fight-or-flight mode during conflict? It's true: Whenever you feel attacked (physically or, in this case, emotionally), your blood drains from the prefrontal cortex (aka, the place for rational decision-making and problem solving) to the motor area to prepare you to fight or flee. 

"Because you don't have enough activation in the prefrontal cortex, you can't listen accurately," says Julie. "You can't empathize, you can't be creative—instead, it feels like tunnel vision." That's why people often say things during conflict that they don't mean; so, she explains, the best thing you can do in those moments is to quite literally take a step back. 

Why a 20-minute break can help. 

When the conflict starts to get heated, the Gottmans say you should simply take a break: "Stop on a dime at that point," says Julie. "Don't try to get in the last word, if your partner's [the one] asking for the break." 

However, you don't want to leave the conversation with no plan of action. Make sure to say when you'll come back to continue the conversation. "That's crucial, because if you don't and you're the one asking for the break, your partner may feel abandoned or rejected," Julie notes. In terms of timing, she says the break can last from a minimum of 20 minutes up to 24 hours—don't make it last longer than a day, or she says it can start to feel like a punishment. 

Now, here's the challenging bit: When you're separated during this break, participate in something self-soothing. "This is crucial," Julie says. "A lot of people will think about the fight and what they should say when they go back: 'What's a perfect rebuttal, what's a perfect response?' That's terrible to do because it keeps you engaged internally in the fight. As long as you're thinking about it, your body can't calm down." 

In other words: On your break, do something to get your mind off the conflict. Take a walk, watch TV, listen to music, practice yoga or meditation—anything that brings your mind to a calmer state. That way, "when you go back at the designated time you agreed to, you're calm, and the conversation is entirely changed." 

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The takeaway.

As much as we say to deal with conflict in healthy, productive ways, sometimes things get heated. It happens, and it doesn't mean your relationship is on the chopping block. According to the Gottmans, you may just need a 20-minute (or so) break before returning to the conversation with a fresh, hopefully calmer mind that's ready to problem-solve. 

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