Do you have a New Year’s resolution to get along better with your partner—to put a cap on anger or communicate better?
Have you considered the value of not doing anything?
In particular, not doing the things that create problems. Stopping habitual patterns can be more effective than trying to first paste something different on top. An effective way to do stop doing is to learn to pause before speaking or acting.
Our brains run on habits. In fact, there is an area of the brain dedicated to learning and storing habits. Habitual or operational memory allows us to complete tasks, like driving a car, without focusing of the hundreds of micro-elements involved. Habits let the brain conserve energy and focus on other things.
Some habits are not helpful, such as anger or communicating defensively, yet we can repeat the same patterns with the same results for years, decades even. Arguments are often so similar that they seem choreographed: both partners stop listening and react/withdraw without seeing their own part in the dance.
Negative habits take us out of the present moment and create fallout. After a fight you may feel guilty or upset with how you acted, or hurt by what your partner said. Yelling at someone who cut you off in traffic can lead to physical confrontation. Some couples go for hours or even days without speaking after an argument. Inserting a pause before you speak is a great way of breaking out of negative habit and being present to the ever-changing flow of your relationship (and life), preventing unwanted consequences.
Learning to pause is not the same as being hesitant because you do not trust your feelings or know how to communicate, nor is it the same as not wanting to speak because your partner will criticize you if you do. These are different issues which need to be worked through with your partner.
Below are some tips for learning how to pause effectively, especially before speaking:
1. Use Physical Cues
Noticing your breath or physical posture are great ways to be present (most people hold their breath when stressed). Noticing where you are holding tension (neck, clenched jaw, eyebrows furrowed) can help you cue in to the moment.
2. Give Yourself Permission to Pause
There is no need to be in a rush to respond; this just exacerbates things. Allow some space in your thoughts and actions. A pause need not be long, though; a quarter second check-in can work wonders.
3. Identify Triggers for Automatic Reactions
Naming a pattern helps you step outside it. “Getting angry, seeing things in black or white”; “Money triggers me.”
4. Recognize Choices
When you pause you step outside of habit and then have a choice about how to respond. Here, positive communication tools can be useful.
5. When in Doubt Summarize
If, after taking a moment to pause, you are unsure of what to say, summarize what you hear your partner saying. This will help you deepen into listening.
6. Sprinkle Throughout Your Day
Add pauses throughout your day. A moment outside of time helps you cue in to what your partner is doing or needing. Taking a moment to check-in and be present is also an efficient way of living, as you will be less likely to forget your grocery list, neglect an important phone call, or miss something important your boss/child/partner says. When someone cuts you off on the road, pausing helps you step out of a habitual reactivity. “He’s in a hurry, I’ll give him some space” is a response you can choose; “Idiot, use your signal (swearing)” is a habitual response. Pause and allow space to do things differently.
Once said, words can reverberate through a relationship like ripples in a pond; negative words and actions can take some hard work to repair. It is far better to pause before speaking, especially in disagreements. A moment out of time creates space for different ways of responding. Give yourself permission to pause throughout your day; your life and relationships will thank you as you deepen into the present and respond with your best self.