THE ART OF DISENGAGEMENT
Sometimes disengagement is very painful for one partner, who may for the moment be clinging to or pursuing the mate in order to unload his or her distress. Other times, roles can be reversed. This article is for both of you. To be done without creating new problems, healthy disengagement requires a 4-step process: Understanding, Envisioning, Preparing, and Succeeding.
Understand and remember these facts:
- Every relationship needs space for peace and quiet at times.
- Absence can make the heart grow fonder, and familiarity breeds contempt.
- The one who can let go and self-soothe has all the power in the moment.
- It’s better to give our mates what others say they need, not what mates say they want.
- Good communication meets the need of partner and self at the same time
- Don’t sacrifice peace together down the road for combative closeness now.
- We can’t fix or figure out our mate’s thoughts and feelings, only our own.
- Refusing to discuss a subject is a toxic insult to the partner and harms the relationship.
- It is much better to offer a later time when a topic can be discussed, and prepare to do so.
- Clinger/venter often wants to give back pain that has been caused by mate.
- Betraying partner needs to show s/he feels more pain than before, and is embracing this pain as a teacher.
Recognize the purposes of disengaging from unhealthy conversation in order to pursue healthy communication:
- Encouraging both to take responsibility for their own feelings and behavior
- Encouraging future pro-active, solution-focused discussion
- Discouraging the dumping/puking of irresponsible beliefs and opinions
- Preventing a partner who is being flooded with hateful emotions from breaking rules for healthy communication.
- Decide on rules you will try to follow for healthy communication. You may want to start with the “Ground Rules for Marital Conflict” you can print out from my website below (see “Blog”, then “Marriage”). For these and other items below, if mate doesn’t offer suggestions in writing within a time frame you give, you can start using your own until you can both amend your list.
- Each of you will need an in-house sanctuary, a place where your mate agrees to leave you alone when you go there to get yourself together. You will also need an in-town overnight sanctuary, a place you can leave the house and go where you will be safe, where your presence can be verified, and where your mate cannot get to you for the night. This ideally would be the house of a friend or relative agreeable to the spouse.
- Agree in advance on one subject at a time for discussion, and stick to it. Don’t change the subject. Proposals of a subject for discussion can be made live, or through text or voicemail, but we don’t start into a painful discussion without agreeing on its focus.
- Express the purpose/subject as a forward-looking positive goal. Begin with a solution in mind that will appeal to both parties. Research has demonstrated clearly that discussions tend strongly to end the way they are started. Your mate will be much more likely to agree to a discussion that has such a purpose. If talks begin looking backward at negatives, that’s how they will likely end. If they begin with looking forward to positives, that’s probably how they will end.
Use these time-out procedures in this order.
- One-finger warning: raise index finger to point up, and to stand between your eyes and your mate’s. Instead of interrupting, this signals that a rule of healthy communication is being broken, and you are not listening until the mate takes the dysfunctional message back, apologizes for it, and assures you that it will be avoided in the remainder of the discussion. You may point to the list of agreed-upon rules to signal your partner which rule or rules are being broken, and how the messages need to be revised. “Oh, I’m sorry, I was raising my voice too high, reading your mind and heart, and attacking your character. Let me rephrase. . . . ” Then the finger goes down and the conversation can be continued. If it isn’t recognized or apologized for, isn’t rephrased properly, leave your finger up to warn that with the next violation, you are going to your in-house sanctuary.
- 10- or 20-finger time-out warning: raise all 10 fingers between your two faces, palms out, to indicate you are taking a 10-minute time out to your in-house sanctuary. As with the first warning, if it is heeded, and a proper apology and reassurance is given, and if you are allowed a minute or two of silence to gather yourself before lowering your hands, you may decide to stay. If you need 20 or 30 minutes, flash your hands a second or third time. Both set timers on your phones to signal when time is up. If you are left alone and not bothered by partner during this time, you will come back to the discussion to resume listening.
- Time-out to garage: raise both hands high in the air to signal that this is your second time out during the discussion, and you will take it in the garage, with windows rolled up. It is for an automatic 30 minutes. As with the first warning, if it is heeded, and a proper apology and reassurance is given, and if you are allowed a minute or two of silence to gather yourself before lowering your hands, you may decide to stay. If you are left alone and not bothered by partner during this time, you will come back to the discussion to resume listening.
- Overnight time-out: the warning this is about to happen is a brief double toot of the horn with both hands raised. As with the first warning, if it is heeded, and a proper apology and reassurance is given, and if you are allowed a minute or two of silence to gather yourself before lowering your hands, you may decide to stay. If you are left alone and not bothered by partner during this time, you will come back to the discussion to resume listening. To make this departure safer and smoother, you may want to leave your car in the garage pointing outward, with an overnight bag packed and stowed in the back. The deal is that you will go directly to the agreed-upon overnight in-town sanctuary referred to above.
In explaining and carrying out this plan, the stock remarks you can make to a partner through a note or a voicemail are: “I am just following your lead here. I am giving you the space that your behavior says you need. Actions speak louder than words to me.” [The actions are rule violations, and the words are words of reassurance that are fresh promises made on top of broken ones.]
It helps to recognize five natural times of the day to start the day over and reconnect, by expressing mutual agreement to use healthier communication: getting out of bed in the morning, breakfast, lunch, supper, and going back to bed. Whether you are in the same room, in another part of the house, out in the garage, or across town, it is always good to start the day over with a text or voicemail that expresses forgiveness and willingness to resume communication on non-stressful, everyday topics. These are also appropriate times of day for prayer, and perhaps to offer to pray together as a way of starting the day over, and inviting healthy communication to resume.
Remember that merely refusing toxic communication drives it underground, and it usually emerges later in an even more toxic form. It is much better to offer healthy communication later, toward a constructively focused goal.