Let’s say you find that you are involved in a situation where you and/or your partner are getting upset. Not having tools for stopping poor communication, you fall into in a destructive pattern of reactivity. Different people react in different ways, of course. One person might get more visibly angry or critical. Another might try to avoid and withdraw. Regardless of the form, these are all some form of reacting.
Someone has just said or done something, and the other person is getting upset and showing this through some form of reactivity. The best thing you can do as soon as you recognize this is to put on the brakes, so to speak, and then try to reverse out of the situation as quickly as possible — to repair it in some way.
I frequently see couples in my intensive marriage retreats who fall into reactive cycles. Their reactivity has prevented them from resolving their issues and led to years of unhappiness together. So much suffering ultimately has led many of them to consider divorce, and as a last ditch effort to save their marriage, they come to a retreat. Most had never even thought it possible to stop a reactive cycle, much less have an agreement to do so.
Once they discover how it works, and use it, I see most of these couples learn to resolve their issues and, in doing so, fall back in love again! While the pause tool is powerful, it is just one of several tools I teach in my couples retreats that enable partners to get back on a positive track and overcome their destructive communication patterns.
Learning to to pause and put a halt to reactivity is a crucial skill.
Step one is just say “I need to pause” or something else that acts as a kind of signal to stop the reactive cycle you are in. Use a neutral word or phrase that is non-offensive (e.g. don’t say “YOU need to pause!”).
If this sounds too simple, you are right.
It is an unusual thing to do, and therefore it will not be as comfortable as continuing to head into your reactive pattern. Incredibly, couples are more “comfortable” acting out their familiar escalation into reactivity, than with an unusual act like saying “I need to pause…”
You and your partner need to set up a specific agreement for this tool to be effective. I discuss that later on. You will also have to learn to say and hear your pause signal in ways that avoid further triggering emotional reactions.
But the hardest thing will be to remember to do it. So let’s address the actual meaning of giving your pause signal… and why that will serve you well to stop poor communication and reactivity.
Intention of a Pause
Saying “I need to pause” is the same as saying:
“I’m not resourceful enough right now to clearly hear what you are saying. I’d like to return to this topic later. If we continue discussing it now, I am afraid we will only end up escalating further into our reactive pattern.”
“I would like to pause a bit now in order to center myself. Then I would like to follow up and return to this topic once I am calmer and clear… when I will be able to better hear and respond to what you are saying.”
“I want to reach a positive result around this topic… Is it okay with you if we continue this in a moment (or at a time when we both are ready)?”
You may need only a few moments of pause to catch your breath…. or more time before getting back to discuss the topic. Maybe you’ll need to take a break… be alone and center yourself. At other times, you may only need to change the topic of conversation or be silent for a few minutes. The important thing is to stop escalating unconsciously into your reactive pattern.
Making a Pause Agreement
To use the pause tool effectively, a couple should consider making a clear, specific agreement. This means writing up the agreement as a contract and signing it.
The contract begins by stating its purpose… to stop engaging in behaviors that destroy your relationship and to act in a way that helps you really resolve things and stay on a positive track.
The contract goes on to declare the specific behavioral agreements that support its purpose. These are all necessary for the pause tool to actually work. Read how to make a good agreement »
Having a pause agreement is a primary tool to halt destructive patterns of communication. And there are a number of other important tools to keep your love life on track maximize shared happiness. Learn a full set of powerful and effective communication tools, including the pause tool, in either of my books: Relationship Tools for Positive Change or Five-Minute Relationship Repair »