By: Richard Nicastro, Ph.D.
You've probably heard that
communication is a vital component to a healthy relationship. After
all, communication is the pathway for sharing what you and your
partner need from each other. That said, it's also important to know
that there will be moments when talking about a particular issue
does more harm than good. In those cases, it's better to put
communicating on hold until you both can address the topic in a more
When should you postpone communicating for the sake of the marriage
Heated topics, irrationality and the inability to listen
There are several blocks to effective listening, but one in
particular seems to worsen relationship problems and keep couples
counselors in business:
Attempting to communicate while you're experiencing Intense
We all have trigger points—strong reactions to certain events or
things your spouse/partner says or does (or doesn't do). When
triggered, you become emotionally overwhelmed. Shelly's trigger
point is her husband's failure to respond to her requests. "It
drives me crazy! I have to ask him something three or four times
before I get any reaction. By then I'm usually yelling and I look
like the bad guy…he makes me feel invisible."
Being ignored/feeling invisible is Shelly's trigger point.
Whenever you and your partner trigger one another, the discussion is
likely to get heated and strong emotions end up standing in the way
of healthy communication. Think of yourself as having an <i>emotional
thermostat:</i> when the thermostat gets too high, you're in danger
of reaching your emotional boiling point.
Relationship Trouble: Once you hit this critical emotional point
the following is likely:
1. You become irrational (the part of your brain that deals with
logical, rational thought shuts down for the moment);
2. You become defensive (you enter the survival mode of
self-preservation, which encourages you to protect your self-esteem
by winning the battle);
3. Your ability to really listen and see your partner's perspective
is severely compromised.
And here's another point to remember: when you and your partner
trigger each other, you're both becoming more irrational, defensive
and unable to listen at the same time!
Learning to monitor and control your emotional thermostat
Lessons learned from parenting:
When a discussion gets heated, it's going to be important to monitor
your own emotional thermostat. And when your feelings become too
intense, you need to call a "time-out" and temporarily stop
communicating. When a parent sees that a particular situation is
overwhelming a child, the parent may respond by removing his/her
child from the provocative situation.
At times, couples can benefit from this approach.
Here's how this might look in your marriage or relationship: You've
been trying to have a discussion but you and your partner keep
butting heads. Your partner is upset and you're feeling increasingly
angry—if the discussion continues under these provocative
circumstances, your emotional thermostat will continue to escalate
and real communication will be long gone.
At this point you might say, "We're both upset and I'd like to calm
down. Can we take a 'time-out' and when we're both feeling calmer,
we can try this again."
Even adults need a time-out.
Rules of calling a communication time-out:
a. In the above example, note that the person who suggests a
time-out doesn't say to his/her partner, "You need to calm
down, so I'm calling a time-out." You call a time out for the
benefit of the relationship and because you need to regroup—focus on
what you need.
b. You agree to come back to the issue. Too often, one spouse or
partner may use the time-out as a way to avoid important issues. It
is the responsibility of the person calling the time-out to
reschedule the discussion once both parties feel more emotionally
c. When you feel calmer, use your "time-out" time wisely—don't just
let a few hours or a day pass and end up saying the same exact
things, in the same way, and expect a different outcome! This will
only lead to repetitive, unresolved arguments.
As you practice monitoring your emotional thermostat, you will
become more attuned to the impact your feelings have on your ability
to communicate. This is an important skill to develop. Work with
your partner to effectively utilize time-outs when appropriate and
you'll begin to notice that irrational arguments will give way to
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Richard Nicastro, Ph.D. is a psychologist and relationship coach
with fifteen years experience helping individuals and couples live
more fulfilling lives.