The Value of Taking a Step Back

Keys to Have a “Fight to the Life” Instead of “to the Death”

By Kelly Bryson, MA, MFT

Have you ever gotten a fishing line all tangled up? You got so frustrated you just started yanking on the different loops of line, which of course made the knots and tangles even tighter and more difficult to untangle.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could notice the minute you were starting to tangle things up in a discussion with your loved one? To be able to stop and take a step back — a time out — before the frustrated yanking occurs?

If your time out could be taken before the intense anger and frustration surfaces, the tangles would be far easier to unravel, wouldn’t they? Instead, what I sometimes do is to take space with a “huff,” implying with my body language and tone that “she is impossible, it’s hopeless, I can’t take anymore of this,” etc.

In such a moment, I’m often afraid that I have only two choices:

  • To hang in there and yank and struggle and fight until we get through this mess, or
  • To take space and feel unresolved, disconnected, lonely, worried, unsettled for hours on end until we come back and finish the argument.

I am excited about a new option.  We can take time out in love as an expression of caring for the relationship. Our hope is to get back into connection all the sooner and to protect us from making the tangles all the worse. The key is to create a shared understanding with your loved one that the time out is in the service of reconnecting with yourself, rather than to flee the conversation. 

During that “taking space” time here are 6 things you can do:

  • Think about my part of the tangle to gain clarity about what my reaction was about.
  • Don’t think at all about the distressing discussing but enjoy the break from the struggle trusting that with rest, new energy and clarity will come organically.
  • Translate my jackals first.
  • Translate her jackals.
  • Enjoy music, nature, sports, something totally involving of the mind (reading might be difficult).
  • Journal.

"I like that idea, but how do I get there?"

Many of the couples I work with struggle to use a time out or “taking space,” because the inner jackals of guilt and self-judgment are simply too rampant for them to hear their needs. Here’s a common example of the pain I see couples in:

  • The woman is hurt, discouraged, hopeless, and lonely while the man is angry, frustrated, exhausted and scared. The woman’s unmet need is for empathy, closeness and a higher quality of intimate conversation.
  • The man’s need is for respect, rest, validation of his worth as he is, and to unhook himself from his inner sense of guilt and inadequacy about his partner’s pain.

This issue is related to the old freedom/closeness dance — the struggle so many couples have between the desire for intimacy and their need for independence or autonomy. Couples can get too dependent on the idea that their partner is the only person who can meet his/her needs, so much so that they keep the fight going long after it’s contributing to either of them.

Don’t listen to one more word than you want to hear

I wish that both men and women would refuse to listen to each other unless they were sure it was a compassionate contribution to the other’s need to be heard instead of a caving-in-concession. May we only “give to” each other and never “give in” to each other lest we breed the slimy serpents of resentment. Taking a time out can often be the best method to “give to” each other when the lines are about to be tangled.

[Of course this dynamic frequently occurs with the genders reversed.  But for the sake of simplicity I will continue to describe this yin/yang dynamic in terms of male and female.]

The pain and the emptiness and the loneliness can become so intense for women that they truly become either desperate or hopeless. They get into aggressive demanding, or pleading, or moping around in self-hate/pity, both of which are hard not to interpret as demands.

Meeting your needs is not dependent on your partner!

If they could just get some high quality listening/empathy somewhere it would take some of the charge and intensity off their pain and make it easier to open a dialogue with their mate.

Some women are afraid to do this because they interpret this as infidelity or disloyalty. Others think of it as inappropriately airing the family’s dirty laundry. Still others are afraid of having their vulnerability trampled upon.

The corresponding frustration, irritation and resentment gets so built up in the men that the slightest request triggers the unleashing of the backlog until their partners are walking around on eggshells.

Their resentment comes due to their own self-abandonment. It comes because they have listened when they needed to be heard. It comes because they were trying to be strong and not need to take space and rest and recharge when they needed it. The resentment is there because they didn’t know they had a choice not to listen when it didn’t fit for them to listen.

Listening to someone when you are really needing to be heard or to rest is violence to the both of you. You violate your responsibility to yourself and begin to hate yourself whenever you don’t take care of your own needs. Also you begin to hate and resent the other and hold the illusion that they are oppressing you.

Somewhere along the line in the relationship the man grows to dread seeing the woman’s pain for several reasons:

  • He interprets it as accusation. (I hear your pain, and I add it to my list of inadequacies).
  • He interprets it as proof of his inadequacy. (If she is still in pain, I must not be adequately providing for her, therefore I must be inadequate).
  • He thinks he has no choice but to sit and listen. (We all know we hate whatever we have no choice about; lectures from our Dad, finishing our broccoli, paying taxes.)
  • It triggers fear that the relationship is ending, which he wants to avoid.

Because he has such fear of his own anger about his powerlessness, and shame about thinking he is somehow inadequate, sophisticated men learn to go up to their heads to hide behind sophisticated projective, politically, and spiritually correct analytical labels of their partners.

Here are a few of my favorites:

  • “She’s just playing victim.” Translation: “I am pissed off that I am choosing to take on responsibility and feel guilty about the pain she is in.”
  • “She’s so neeeedy.” Translation: “I am scared to tell her that I have different needs than she does right now partly because of the shame I have about having needs at all, but also because I am afraid I will be abandoned if I don’t meet her needs.”
  • “She’s overly dependant.” Translation: “I am confused about how to assert my needs for independence and I am tempted to plead with her to please give me permission to be independent.”

Fight to the life, not to the death

Taking a time out to give yourself empathy, and to connect to the needs behind your jackals or anger can help you transform these unproductive and disconnecting ways of thinking. Think of it as your relationship’s preventive medicine. The next time you sense that the lines are getting tangled, try taking a time out in love, but remember to clarify to your partner your intention for doing so — to contribute to a more loving and productive connection later.

Kelly Bryson MA, MFT, is a CNVC certified trainer and the author of the best selling book, Don’t be Nice, Be Real: Balancing Passion for Self with Compassion for Others. Kelly is a humorist, singer, inspirational speaker, and licensed therapist in private practice. Learn more about his work, find about his private or phone-based sessions, and buy his book at or by phone 831-462-EARS (3277) (most insurance accepted).