Arguing with your partner is never a fun experience. However, certain arguments are worse than others. These arguments can escalate quickly, and often leave us feeling frustrated and unheard by our partners. So, how do you know when it’s time to take a break? And how do you express the fact that you need a break, in a way that your partner will understand and respect?
First, it is important to recognize when an argument is not going anywhere. If you and your partner are simply repeating yourself, talking louder, and no longer seeing each others’ point of view, it may be time to pause your conversation. If you are feeling more and more frustrated because your partner is not understanding what you’re saying, it is likely that they are either too upset to hear you, or you are too upset to express yourself in a succinct way.
Next, pay attention to your body. Are your fists clenching? Are you sweating or shaking? Is your chest tight? Are you having trouble breathing? Is your heart rate accelerated? According to some research, you will be unable to hear what your partner is trying to tell you, no matter how hard you try, when your heart rate is above 100 beats per minute . It becomes physically impossible to communicate effectively in this state. If you recognize that you are in this heightened state, it is very important to pause the conversation and pick it up at a later time.
If you are beginning to notice these things as you are arguing, these are sure signs that it may be time to take a break from the argument. This is the point in your argument where it is important to utilize your code word.
A code word is a word that two or more people agree to use when they feel an argument is getting too heated. It is a silly word or phrase to indicate that the argument is getting to heated, and that a break in the conversation is necessary. A code word in a relationship should be agreed upon before an argument occurs. This should be discussed during a calm time, when you and your partner are not in an argument and are speaking from a loving place.
It is important to choose a word or phrase that will not be used often, if ever, in your daily life, especially during an argument. It could be something like, “yellow frog,” “sassafras,” or “jambalaya.” Discuss a word with your partner(s) and ensure that everyone knows what this word is, and feels able to use it if an argument is getting too heated.
Once the word is decided on, a time period must be chosen. This is a time period in which everyone has a certain amount of time to reflect on the argument, get their heart rate down, and begin the conversation again in a calm manner. I most often recommend that people return to the topic they are discussing within 24-48 hours. No matter what time limit you set, it is important that everyone understands how long they may or may not have to wait to return to the conversation.
One of the most difficult things about stopping an argument in the middle of the conversation is actually ending the conversation. For some people, it is difficult to not follow the person who wants to leave. For others, it can feel hurtful if you are not pursued when the conversation ends without being resolved. Some people may try to start another argument about a different topic, in order to feel as though communication is still happening. However, it is important to remember that when the code word is invoked, each person must immediately stop the argument, and preferably even separate into different rooms for a while.
The knowledge that the code word has a time limit associated with it should give the pursuing partner some relief. While they may still feel some anxiety, this partner can take comfort in the fact that the conversation will be brought up again. It is essential that the partner who used the code word is also the person who brings the conversation back to the table within the time limit. In this way, the partner who used the code word can feel confident that they will get the space they need in order to process their thoughts and feelings. They do not have to wait for the full time limit; while the partners’ agreement may be that they come back to their conversation within 48 hours, there is always the chance that they will feel more calm and able to return to the discussion in 30 minutes. In this situation, they can approach their partner and ask if the conversation can be continued; if their partner agrees, they can continue their conversation.
It is particularly important to recognize that the code word, by definition, means you should not be pursued by your partner, and a partner who does not follow you after you invoke the code word does so out of respect for you. In addition, when the partner who used the code word is the first to breach the conversation again, the other partner may feel more secure in the relationship. This shows the partner who did not invoke the code word that they do not have to wait indefinitely, or pursue their partner to discuss the conversation further. They should be able to feel confident that the issue will be addressed again in the near future.
The code word can be a difficult thing to use and to respect if you are new to this. To practice, go into your next argument with your partner with the intention of using your code word. Before the discussion begins, agree that one of you will have to utilize our code word and walk away for at least 15 minutes. This can help develop your skill and comfort with using your code word, even if you are just having a friendly debate about your favorite movies!
 Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2015). The seven principles for making marriage work: A practical guide from the country’s foremost relationship expert. New York, NY: Harmony Books.