S.T.O.P.--A 4-Step Strategy for Handling Conflict Without Hurting Your Relationship

Brain researchers have found that when people are scared, hurt, or angry, they're physiologically incapable of thinking straight. Stress hormones flood the body and cause the rational part of the brain to shut down, and the irrational part to take over. That’s why angry people don’t talk to each other, they rant and rave--or work on their trucks.

The S.T.O.P. Strategy will help you calm down when you're upset, so you can gain perspective and reconnect from a better place. The best way to use it is to practice the four steps often, and to start using the strategy during a low-level conflict. That way, when things get really hot, you'll already know how to use it. Here are the four steps:

1. STOP! As soon as you notice yourself getting uncomfortable with the way your conversation is going, STOP! Then say: I need a time out. This tells your partner you need a break, without blaming her (him) for your discomfort.

2. TIME OUT. Time out means physically separating from each other in order to stop the hurt. It means going away for a short time (30-60 minutes) and coming back after both of you have calmed down and have completed Step 3: OWN YOUR PART.

· Brain researchers have found that once the heart is beating 95 bpm or above, the thinking brain (neocortex) shuts down and the emotional brain (amygdala) takes over. This means it does no good to keep arguing when you’re both upset, because the reasonable part of your brain is no longer listening.
· John Gottman’s research on marital satisfaction found that couples who disengage when things start heating up, and try again after both people are calmer, stay together and report greater satisfaction in their relationships.

3. OWN YOUR PART. This means taking responsibility for your part in creating the problem. It means calming yourself down, analyzing your behavior, and redirecting your energy away from attacking or defending.

Most people believe they’ve won if they’ve gotten their spouse to do things their way. Don’t mistake submission for devotion, or obedience for love.

· Every act of overt muscling by one partner leads to 2 equally powerful acts of covert defiance by the other!
Examples of Overt Muscling:
· Demanding sex and/or obedience
· Controlling resources: $, freedom, time
· Using violence or threats to control partner
· Showing anger and contempt for partner in public (includes: attacks on character or appearance as well as acting as if partner is invisible)
· Shouting or intimidating with words or gestures (includes: sarcasm, mocking, finger-pointing, cornering, taunting,)
· Blaming, belittling, interrogating, name-calling
· Hammering a point to death
· Ganging up on partner by bringing in kids, in-laws, other allies.
· Excusing your bad behavior by blaming your partner for it: I wouldn’t drink if you weren’t so X .”
· Doing any of the above in front of your children

Examples of Covert Defiance:
· Withdrawing or Avoiding (includes: the garage, the kids, work, school, alcohol, etc.)
· Stonewalling (includes: the silent treatment, refusing to talk)
· Withholding affection, attention, tenderness, appreciation, sex
· Making excuses for why you didn’t follow-through . . . again
· Making and breaking promises and agreements
· Procrastinating
· Chronic “forgetting”: “Oops. . . You know how my memory is.”
· Chronic lateness
· Chronic apologies without subsequent changes in behavior
· Flaunting your affection for others in front of your partner
· Lying or hiding the truth
· Bad-mouthing your partner to your children, friends, family
· Developing a social network that excludes your spouse

OWNING YOUR PART means that during your time out you take responsibility for calming yourself down and redirecting your energy away from attacking or defending toward understanding and caring for your relationship.

· Techniques for calming yourself down: going for a walk, taking a hot bath, listening to quiet music, writing in a journal.

· Questions to help you redirect your energy:
1. What negative behaviors from the lists above did I use?
2. How might those behaviors have contributed to the bad feelings my partner and I experienced?
3. What could I have done that would have been more helpful, more considerate, more kind?
4. Assuming that most people don’t attack or defend unless they’re feeling threatened, what vulnerable feelings were behind my anger and (or) defensiveness? (Examples: fear, guilt, embarrassment, sadness, hurt)
5. What vulnerable feelings might have been behind my partner’s behavior? (Examples: fear, guilt, embarrassment, sadness, hurt)

After you’ve answered these questions and have a better understanding of what went wrong and what part you played, you’re ready for the last step: PEACE OFFERING.

3. PEACE OFFERING! Assuming you’ve done all 3 previous steps, you
should be ready to come back together and talk. Each of you should take a turn sharing what you learned about yourself from your time away. This means owning your part, apologizing to your partner for the hurt you may have caused, and making a peace offering. A peace offering can be as simple as a hug or a kiss, or it can be a promise or an agreement to do something different. When both of you have completed this step, chances are you’ll be feeling lots better.

Here’s an example of how this step might sound:

“At first, all I could see was what you did to make me mad, but when I went through the lists and saw: blaming, forgetting, and excusing--I realized that I played a part in what went wrong. I think I was attacking you because I was feeling guilty myself for forgetting to do X. Sorry. I know I let you down. Next time I can try to be more honest sooner, or I can at least stop blaming you before you’ve even had a chance to talk. I promise to do X by Friday.”

Sounds good, huh? You can do it, too. Practice the STOP strategy over and over until the steps are automatic. It takes lots of repetition, so hang in there! When you’ve got it down, try teaching it to your kids. If they’re too young to understand it, use the strategy in front of them. They’ll learn by example how to communicate lovingly and respectfully.

Author's Bio: 

Betsy Sansby, MS, LMFT is a licensed marriage & family therapist with over 20 years experience counseling individuals, couples, and families. She is also the coauthor—with her husband—of seven instructional books on hand-drumming and percussion, including their latest book for kids, Slap Happy. She is the creator of an ingenious communication tool for couples called: The Ouchkit: A First-Aid Kit for Your Relationship. Clients who have used the kit describe it as: “Marriage Counseling in a Box.” You can read her advice column “Ask Betsy” at: www.theouchkit.com.