Emotional Flooding, Externalization, and the Art of the Time Out

Emotional Flooding, Externalization, and the Art of the Time Out

This article is part of the Why Couples Fight Series

In order to stop fighting with your partner, there are a few things to consider.  While marital conflict is unavoidable, emotional flooding, toxic fighting and escalation are entirely preventable.

Here are the 2 powerful ideas for what to do instead of fighting with your partner:

Escalation is the Enemy.

First, we externalize the problem. It is more than just a play on words. When we look at things differently, we tend to believe that these differences are representative of our partner. We internalize them as “that person who believes this bad/stupid/wrong idea.”

It’s not only that you see things differently, but it’s also that you believe these different beliefs or traits make your partner bad or wrong.

So you’re so ready to go to the mattresses over your differences (and not in a good way) to change their minds. You pull out all the stops because thinking differently is, by itself, is a bad sign.

stop fighting with your partner

The first relief couples experience is that something other than themselves is to blame.

Externalization is an incredibly useful idea often credited to Narrative and Solution-Focused Therapies.

But the historic roots of the externalization intervention are found in family therapy with children in the early 1980’s.

The essential idea of externalization is that your spouse is not the problem…the problem is the problem. With externalization, you have a mutual opportunity to discuss the issue as something between you, and not within either of you.

Let’s take an example: Your partner is an early bird, and you’re a night owl.  After you get home from work, you like to relax over dinner, talk, and watch a show. But before you know it, they are heading to bed! They “stubbornly” refuse to stay up later. They “selfishly” turn their back on keeping you company. And then they argue that YOU should get up earlier to enjoy the morning before work!

THEY are the problem.

But wait…what if the problem was a different wake/sleep cycle. They no longer have to be stubborn, selfish, or demanding. They can just be different.

Externalization: Making Your Partner an Ally Against the Problem

It’s your cycle, your demon dance, ” the more…, the more” that fuels your escalation. The escalation is the problem. Once you understand that escalation is the enemy, you can both align with each other more readily to prevent it.

Once escalation is externalized (i.e., seen as a problem sufficient unto itself and not exclusively your partner’s doing) it can be discussed in fresh new ways.

For instance, once externalized, it’s now possible for your couples therapist to ask questions about how long the escalation has been impacting the marriage when it first invaded their intimate bond.

If there were factors that made it easy for escalation to walk in the door, what were they? What are the real impacts of this unwelcome escalation on both of you?  When has escalation been strongest and weakest? What maintains the escalation and under what situations does it tend to leave? What soothes the escalation? And what tends to makes it worse?

Questions like these reframe the problem of escalation into a co-created story-line. Now you can discuss the issue of escalation in a fresh new way.

Another way to discuss escalation is as a systemic process. “To the extent that you ( fill in their spouses’ complaint) and the extent to which they (fill in their complaint) escalation arises like a chemical reaction.

It is essential for escalating couples to become more curious than furious and begin to conceptualize the problem of escalation in a way that is both systemic, trigger-laden, and externalized. 

And once that happens a couple can catch themselves mid-escalation. I tell my couples that either of them has the option to say “we’re doing it again.”

Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. Viktor E. Frankl

Master the Art of the Time Out

If You Want to Stop Fighting With Your Partner, Master the Ultimate Tool Against Escalation…the Art of the Time Out.

The purpose of a Time-Out is simple.

It’s to stop you from abruptly escalating. It’s a panic button — an emergency brake.

A Time-Out is a 20-minute to 30-minute break away from an escalating conversation offers a temporal space for each spouse to regain control of their emotions, and allow time for negative emotions to subside.

The Proper Frame for the Time Out.Resist the temptation to critique each other’s emotional self-control. A Time-Out is a self-report. It is a gift of the Observing Self. Calling a time out has everything to do with you, and nothing to do with your partner. When you call a Time-Out you are saying. “I don’t like what I’m feeling, thinking or doing.”

Don’t call a Time-Out to highlight your partner’s strong emotion (“I think you need a time out” ).  It could backfire and might escalate the situation.

You are Leaving the Room…Explain What it Means and What it Doesn’t Mean.Explain what’s going on with you. Use simple descriptive language. “I don’t like what I’m feeling, thinking or doing” is a good start. Be responsible and communicate clearly. If you don’t want to be pursued, speak plainly about when you will be back.

Have a Time Out Ritual Agreed Upon In Advance. Some couples use the “T sign.” Others have a ritual sentence which confirms the durability of their emotional connection, and the fleeting nature of their emotional distress; “I love you, and I’m on your side… but I don’t like how I’m reacting right now. I need a moment. I will be back in 20.”

Time-Outs are a Unilateral Act of Grace. You Don’t Need Permission. Don’t belabor the point. Be clear, concise and be gone. If you want to stop fighting with your partner, declare a Time-Out and retire to another room.

Close the door. Tense and relax your muscles. Take deep cleansing breaths. Read something to block rumination. Your only goal is to calm your nervous system down. If fighting with your partner renders them too dysregulated to let you take a Time-Out… leave.

The Egg Intervention

If you’re taking a Time-Out by leaving, tell them where you are going and when you will return. Communicating with your partner during a fight is essential. And if you decide to briefly leave, walking is far safer than driving.

Here’s an idea that some of my clients have used. Before you leave, take an egg out of the refrigerator.

Go out for a walk. Breathe deeply and walk briskly. Feel the cool egg gradually warm in your hand as you walk.

Imagine all of you emotion and frustration are warming the egg, seeping out of you and into the egg. Keep walking for 20 minutes or so. Then do something appropriate with this egg.

Some people might want to throw it into a trash can or smash it against a tree. Others may hide it somewhere.

But whatever you choose to do with the egg, return to your spouse in a calm state.

One of my clients quietly thanks the egg for absorbing his frustration and dutifully returns it to the refrigerator.

Remember to Return to the Scene of the Time-Out

When are you ready to end a Time-Out, you should both be emotionally regulated, prepared to repair, and definitely not flooded.

Some therapists suggest that you return to the conversation. I prefer that you do a check-in first.

Ask each other how you feel about picking up the conversation. Maybe you do… or maybe you want to talk about something else for a while.

The important thing is to check-in and emotionally reconnect.

One of my heroes, Couples Therapist Extraordinaire Terry Real suggests a 24-hour moratorium on triggering topics. That’s not a bad idea either.

Sometimes You Just Need Tools. Some couples have specific topics that typically lead to escalation. That’s when a good couples therapist can help. Don’t be afraid to get help if you get too stuck too often. If you want to know how to stop fighting with your partner… get some good couples therapy.

Are You Ready for Good Couching?

 

Research:

Bannink, F. (2006). 1000 Solution-focused questions. New York: Norton.de Shazer, S. (1985). Keys to solution in brief therapy. New York: Norton.Gerhart, D. (2010). Collaborative and narrative therapies. In Mastering Competencies in family therapy: A practical approach to theories and clinical case documentation. Belmont, CA: Cengage, 403-458.Gehart, D. R. & Tuttle, A. R. (2003). Theory-based treatment planning for marriage and family therapists. Belmont, CA: Cengage.Real, T. (2007) The new rules of marriage. New York: Ballantine Books.

Why Couples Fight Series

Happy Couples Focus on These Fights

Why Do We Fight in Relationships?

8 Essential Guidelines to Marriage Arguments

13 Fair Fighting Rules in Marriage

How Nagging Can Kill You

The Problem with Being Defensive

Relationship Repair in 6 Steps

Gottman Repair Attempts: Love Made Easy

The Art of the Apology

The Problem of Contempt in Marriage

Conflict Avoidant Couple Affairs

Why Is My Husband So Angry?

Angry Wife? Why? And What Can I Do About it?

Marital Fight Autopsy…EFT Model

Marital Fight Autopsy…Developmental Model

Marital Fight Autopsy… Gottman Model

Stonewalling… the Story and the Science

Another Fight About Nothing

Why Couples Fight Series

  1.  Why Do We Fight?
  2.   Fair Fighting: 13 Rules
  3.   8 Guidelines for Fair Fighting
  4.   Fighting in Front of the  Kids
  5.   Why is My Wife So Angry?
  6.   My Husband is So Mean!
  7.  Problem with Being Defensive

8 Gottman’s Four Horsemen9.    Nagging10.   What is Contempt?11.    Defensiveness12.   What is Stonewalling?13.   My Husband and I Argue Everyday!14.   Escalating & Time Out15.   Effects of Angry Parents on Children

16.   The Art of an Apology17.   How to Repair Your Relationship18.   More than “I’m Sorry…” Repair Attempts19.   Conflict Avoidance in Relationships20.   Gottman Style Fight Autopsy21.   EFT Style Fight Autopsy22.   The Developmental Model Fight Autopsy

About the Author Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He is the Blog Editor. He currently works online seeing couples from Massachusetts at Couples Therapy Inc. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.

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