In an issue of Oprah magazine Jerry Seinfeld talks about marriage. He says that one of his ground rules in an argument with his wife is that they both have to stay in the room until they work their differences out.
"In fact," he continues, "I said this to my wife the other day: 'I understand that you're so upset that you just want to walk away. But, you know, I don't care that it's hard. You stay in the room until you feel better. Then you can leave.' "
I couldn't disagree more. When I feel things getting heated I suggest that my husband and I both leave the room and take a break. It always helps. I used to stay and try to work things out, thinking that if we loved each other we should be able to work it out quickly and feel better sooner.
But the situation got worse more often than it got better, and resentments lingered longer. Then I learned a few things, and I realized that leaving has a lot going for it.
I believe there are two reasons that walking out (of an argument) is a good idea. One is the pain body, as described by Eckhart Tolle in A New Earth. The other is the 90-second rule, as described by Jill Bolte Taylor.
I don't know why the pain body, like some alien from another planet, chooses to inhabit our psyches and make us miserable, but I do know that once it takes over, research suggests that it will invade everyone else in the room as well. (Ask me in the comments if you want to see the studies.)
I can generally tell when my I've been "snatched" by the pain body, and I can literally feel it feasting on the negative energy in the room. If I don't get out quickly I know that it will settle in for a grand buffet. The only successful means I have found for starving it is to leave the room. My husband now understands and supports this tactic too.
I learned about the 90-second rule when I read Jill Bolte Taylor's memoir My Stroke of Insight. Taylor is a brain scientist who had a stroke when she was 37 years old. She received significant damage to her left hemisphere, the part of our brain that is responsible for organizing information and language, remembering the past, and projecting into the future. (The right brain is all about being right here, right now and feeling joyful in the present moment.)
Fortunately she recovered and documented her experience in her fascinating memoir. My Stroke of Insight. She provides us with a scientific understanding of why it's always a good idea to take a break in a heated situation.
Something happens in the external world and all of a sudden we experience a physiological response by our body that our mind would define as fear.
So in my brain some circuit is saying something isn't safe and I need to go on full alert, those chemicals flush through my body to put my body on full alert, and for that to totally flush out of my body, it takes less than 90 seconds . (emphasis mine)
So, if it's my fear circuitry or my anger circuitry [that's being triggered], the 90-second rule is totally empowering. That means for 90 seconds, I can watch this happen, I can feel this happen, and I can watch it go away.
When you are in an argument with someone you are usually choosing to stay stuck in your anger or fear. You're choosing it by continuing to think the same thoughts that created it, thus re-triggering it.
Maybe the Dalai Lama or Eckhart Tolle can choose to think different, peaceful or loving thoughts when they have recently felt hurt or angry, but I've yet to meet a mere mortal with this ability.
I've learned that my ability to choose a better-feeling, more peaceful or loving thought always depends on getting away from the scene of the argument. Once I'm away I usually embark on some heart-thumping cardio or take a walk outside and look up a lot.
Only then do I start to feel the negative hormones flush from my system. And then I can look at my husband's side and better understand his needs and how to meet them. I write about it often, but it bears repeating that all of our underlying needs are really the same: We all want to be seen, heard, and loved for exactly who we are – warts and all.
When I am in a peaceful, centered place I want for all of us to get our needs met. The reason that my marriage has enjoyed such wonderful longevity (19 years this March!) is that my husband wants that too.