All Couples Know: Arguing Can Get Out Of Control
For some couples I see in my couples therapy practice, the idea of a partner walking away in the moment of hurt or anger that comes with an argument is terrifying. It feels like an abandonment–because it usually is one. But for the health of the relationship, however, sometimes walking away is better than the alternative.
Why Walk Away?
Many couples that come to couples therapy think the notion of rules for a fight seems like an oxymoron. For them, fighting is, by definition, unbound. People disagree. Avoiding airing those disagreements is hazardous, and when a disagreement is intense, emotions are sure to be high. Hence, we fight.
But, no fight is so important that it needs to happen right now no matter what. Why should you walk away from a fight? Because you are probably in the worst place to make a reasonable point, raise your needs, listen to what your partner is sharing and respond with compassion. Because sometimes really bad stuff happens when an argument goes south and couples keep on fighting. Because tomorrow is a much better time to hash this out.
Knowing You Can Walk Away Is Often Great Prevention
Walking away when things get heated is a pretty heavy intervention. Some couples are cool with walking away when things get hot–it’s a good skill. In those cases, there likely isn’t much of a trigger around abandonment. For other couples, though, walking away can be excruciating and feels like a really big deal, especially late at night when walking away may mean one partner spends the night elsewhere. It often feels drastic.
The goal in couples therapy (and for couples period) is to get to a point where walking away isn’t necessary. Some of the time, the mere existence of a carefully talked through plan is prevention enough. In other instances, couples need to go through it a few times, walking away even when it’s hard and coming together afterwards to talk through what happened.
Having a plan helps, which is why I’ve detailed seven strategies on how to walk away:
1. Agree In Advance On The Conditions Of Walking Away
Couples should agree in advance that if things get out of control someone will walk away. Sometimes there’s value in deciding who that will be beforehand. It’s also necessary to define what out of control means in relation to a fight, whether that is when meanness is escalating, when name-calling intensifies or when tempers start boiling.
2. Decide How To Execute Walking Away
It’s also important to come to an agreement in advance about the way walking away will be executed. Detail how everyone is going to respond no matter how upsetting the moment is.
3. Pay Attention To How Walking Away May Make One Or Both Partners Feel Abandoned
Special attention is needed for attending to the ways these moments can make one or both partners feel abandoned. Not only is it destructive to threaten not to return (or to shut someone out as a consequence of walking way), it is often helpful to make the opposite clear. Say, “I’m leaving just for now, but I promise that I’ll be back.”
4. Leave (And Let Leave) Calmly
When walking away, it’s critical that you leave or allow your partner to leave calmly. Don’t slam doors or curse on the way out.
5. Reassure Your Partner That You Will Be Safe
Whoever leaves needs to make sure to reassure the other partner that he or she will be safe. That means taking a phone, wallet, keys and a coat in cold weather. If it seems like a walk around the block or an hour at the coffee shop is what’s needed, say as much. And if you need a longer break, let your partner know where you intend to be overnight.
6. When Infidelity Has Been An Issue Or A Fear In The Relationship, Extra Attention Is Needed
If infidelity has been an issue or a fear of one or both partners, this needs extra care. Partners should make clear in advance that no matter how upset they get that they won’t leave and seek out someone they’ve had a past relationship with, someone their partner has expressed concern about or anyone that comes with a risk of inappropriate behavior. For couples in open relationships, this needs particular attention. A partner, who is otherwise condoned, may or may not feel safe for a partner to seek out in a fight.
7. It’s Best To Avoid Texting Or Talking On The Phone After Walking Away
Texting or talking to your partner on the phone after walking away is generally best to be avoided. If you’ve given your partner some assurance that you’ll be okay, this, at most, can be reinforced over text. What is important to avoid, however, is communicating by phone in ways that defeat the purpose of a break.