After having a bad fight on their ninth wedding anniversary, Elisha and Elon knew two things for sure: They still loved one another; and unless they stopped having such arguments, they’d never make it to their tenth. So they decided to try couples therapy.
I started our session by asking them to discuss the issues that brought them to me. Their reluctance to start talking was palpable. Their fights had become so bad neither was eager to start a conversation they believed would quickly descend into a nasty and hurtful disagreement, even (or especially) in a therapy office.
“If so many of your disagreements go rapidly downhill and have for quite a while,” I said, “how come neither of you have figured out how to apply the brakes?”
“I try,” Elon responded. “But she’s too busy yelling at me.”
“I kind of meant before the yelling begins,” I responded.
“There’s very little warning,” Elisha said. “One minute we’re just talking and the next we’re in a fight.”
“Do you know what turns it from a discussion into a fight?” I asked. “What the triggers are?”
They both shrugged. Elon added, “We’re too busy fighting at that point to unpack it.”
Elisha and Elon face a problem many couples share: Their inability to slow down their fights or to take a time out once they take a turn for the worse makes them hesitant to analyze the argument with one another afterward and leaves them unable to figure out what triggered the escalation. As a result, they keep repeating the same template and have the same kind of argument over and over again—a bad one.
In theory, they’re both willing to work on their communication and have been, even before they came to see me. But in practice, they just don’t know how to avoid getting swept up in their anger and frustration, and dragged into a fight they know is going to be unproductive.
Given that they could not afford a long course of therapy, and considering the urgency of their situation, I suggested something I’ve suggested to other couples in such predicaments—that they devise an emergency brake. This is a code phrase they could use to signal an immediate time-out when things went bad.
Many couples are highly aware when their arguments enter unproductive territory yet lack the ability to stop arguing in that moment, even when they’re both convinced that nothing good will come of it. Using an agreed-upon code phrase is a simple but effective way to pause angry exchanges long enough for calmer heads to prevail–as long as both members of the couple agree to abide by it.
What the specific code phrase is doesn’t matter as long as both members of the couple agree to stop arguing when it is invoked. Some couples have chosen obvious phrases such as, “Time for the timeout,” and others obscure ones such as “Raw cauliflower!” (I have no idea why and I didn’t ask.)
Using a code phrase will allow you to achieve 7 important goals:
- Prevent further escalation.
- Cool down and calm down.
- Figure out how you feel.
- Figure out why you feel that way—what exactly is upsetting you.
- Figure out what’s upsetting your partner. (If you think you know you’re probably wrong, so give it thought.)
- Clarify what you want your partner to understand and/or do.
- Figure out how to express yourself more productively so you can reflect the thinking you’ve done and the conclusions you’ve reached.
Rules of invoking the code phrase:
- The person invoking the code phrase should only do so after their partner speaks, not as a way to shut up their partner after they just spoke.
- Like the bell in a boxing match, both partners must immediately stop the discussion and go to their corners. (Spitting in a bucket is optional.)
- The partner invoking the code phrase must suggest a time to continue the discussion, if possible, within the next 24 hours.
The code phrase can be an extremely useful tool to reduce an escalation in arguing that might otherwise cause serious damage to the relationship. Yes, it’s a simple thing, but sometimes it’s the simple things that can make the most difference.