Does Love Mean You Shouldn’t Leave (An Argument)?

by Stacey Curnow on · 21 comments

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.

by Stacey Curnow

Stacey is a purpose and success coach who helps you give birth to your BIG dreams. To find your purpose and passion, check out her FREE eBook, The Purpose and Passion Guidebook.
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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Meg February 10, 2012 at 7:59 am

Leaving an argument is the hardest thing for me to do. I don’t like when things are not resolved. I always have this unsettling feeling when I walk away. I can see it’s benefits. When you try and stay in the argument, you just keep fighting. I will try and work on walking away….
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Stacey February 10, 2012 at 8:28 am

Hi Meg!

Thanks so much for your candid reply! It *is* super challenging to leave an argument, so I completely understand why you don’t like doing it and why you feel so unsettled when you do.

It might help to talk with your partner (or anyone you might potentially have conflict with — I had to have this talk with my mom), and talk about my article and how you’re re-thinking how you want to respond when an argument happens. Set the intention that you’ll plan to check back in with them within an hour or two (or any amount of time you think might be best). Then ask for their understanding and support while you try out this new practice. Getting their “buy in” early may help.

I’d love to know if you try this and what you think, so please share if you like!

Thanks again for your kind and candid reply!
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Shamelle@BetterBloggingWays February 10, 2012 at 9:37 am

In every relationship there are disagreements. Just because we marry does not mean we give up our own thoughts, opinions or perspectives—it’s important not to. We approach things differently for many reasons..

Name calling and cursing do not make for a constructive method of resolving differences. The purpose of the argument should be to try to sell your position to your partner, not make him/her defensive. How each person deal with arguments may be different and I don’t think the approach written in stone.
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Stacey February 10, 2012 at 10:01 am

Hi Shamelle!

Thanks so much for your thoughtful and thought-provoking comment!

It’s true that dealing with arguments is a very personal process. I like your proactive “sell your position” approach because it sounds like it’s not about negative judgments about the other person. I agree that one is not likely to feel defensive if they don’t feel judged!

Thanks again for sharing!
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Arvind Devalia February 10, 2012 at 4:49 pm

Stacey, thanks for a thought provoking piece.

I would say walk away before the argument takes a turn for the worse. And the way you walk away is key. Have an agreement in place that during a heated moment one of you leaves the room without any parting words of anger or incrimination.

Then a few minutes later or more, get back together for a cool and calm discussion – and making up:-)

Some might say if only life was so easy! And I would reply that yes, life is that easy – if we choose to make it so.

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone! A day with no arguments – and if there is by chance a difference in opinion, then enjoy the making up afterwards:-)
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Stacey February 11, 2012 at 8:11 am

Hey Arvind!

It’s SO great to “see” you here in the comments!

I really appreciate your suggestion encouraging us to have an *agreement* with our partners about how we want to handle a heated argument, and stress how important it is to respect the agreement and not use parting words of anger or incrimination.

I know from my own experience that it’s REALLY challenging NOT to take that “parting shot” or want to have the “last word”, but it makes all the difference in creating the conditions to allow for an exchange that will truly improve the relationship, rather than lead to lasting hurt and resentment.

Thanks again for sharing!!
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Elle February 11, 2012 at 8:43 am

I learned that for me, because I needed time to process my feelings and thoughts, it worked out best to say: I want to talk about this, but not right now, maybe in a hour or maybe even tomorrow, but I definitely will talk about it before two days have passed. Usually, I was ready to have the conversation within the hour…occasionally the next day. It worked well for us.


Stacey February 11, 2012 at 9:15 am

Hi Elle!

Thanks SO much for sharing your exact script with us!! It’s very helpful to know how others ask for what they want and need — and know that it works well for them!

Thanks again for sharing your inspiration and encouragement!
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Patricia - Spiritual Journey Of A Lightworker February 11, 2012 at 12:41 pm

Elle’s process is pretty much the one that I use for myself except that if we are having a really big argument about something that is really important to me, I may add sitting down and writing about all that was said by both of us. I use the writing to pull together my hurt and angry feelings and I can also sort out all the many thoughts that I have about the situation and about my husband’s feelings and thoughts on the topic.

Some of our arguments have been about something that is so important to both of us that we will never agree with the other person’s opinion. I have learned that we both have valid opinions and sometimes we just have to agree to disagree and let go of it. Either way, neither of us has to be right or wrong.

We are both very strong willed people. Sometimes we clash. Most of the time we are in complete agreement but not always. Because we love each other – have for almost 40 years – we have learned to compromise at times.

Staying and “fighting it out” verbally is not never a good idea with me. I shout. I know it is because I was never heard as a child. I was never listened to and both of my parents were shouters. In rational moments, I don’t shout. In irrational moments of temper, I fall back onto shouting. My husband, in response, gets quiet.

When I am shouting, I know that I am feeling either anger or fear. My husband knows that later I will come back and explain my fears, most of the time. Then I can listen to his part. This is the unhealthy part of me that I will probably continue to work on until I die. I am better, so I have to settle for progress, rather than perfection in this area. We rarely argue any more as sometimes I can see the fear before the anger takes over and becomes an argument.
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Stacey February 11, 2012 at 1:22 pm

Hi Patricia!

So lovely to “see” you here!!

I really appreciate that time you took to explain the process you use when the argument is especially emotionally charged. I think if everyone could bring your conscientious, loving and respectful energy to a fraught situation, there would be much more peace in the world.

I read Peter Kramer’s book Should You Leave? a little over 10 years ago when I was considering leaving my husband because it seemed that we couldn’t see each others “side” when we disagreed about something. I soon realized that we just weren’t taking the time to understand each other and find a compromise that would work for each of us. When we learned how to do this, everything got better.

I have no doubt that the lovely, long-lasting (almost 40 years!! wow!!) relationship you share with your husband can also be attributed to your ability to understand each other, agree to disagree, and find a solution that meets both of your needs.

Thanks again for sharing!! I benefited so much from your comment!


Jody - Fit at 54 February 12, 2012 at 11:24 am

Arguments are tough & a fact of life but the key is to work thru it & compromise. I will hit 29 years this year of marriage & ya just can’t give up so easily – it is hard work & as I said compromise…

Thx for sharing!
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Stacey February 12, 2012 at 11:31 am

Hi Jody!!

I love hearing the insights from long-term relationship veterans! Priceless!

Yes, a huge take-away I got from Peter Kramer’s book Should You Leave? is that people who left a relationship were only more likely to have success in a future relationship because they learned to compromise more. He encouraged his readers to learn how to compromise *now* in their current relationship and avoid the leaving — since the important difference wasn’t a different partner, but the ability to compromise!

Thanks again for sharing! And congratulations on 29 years of marriage!!
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Galen Pearl February 12, 2012 at 10:12 pm

I think rigid rules like that can backfire. So, for example, if you know your partner freaks out and feels abandoned if you leave, but you need a breather, you could assure your partner you will be back to continue the discussion after you take a break and get yourself in a better place.
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Stacey February 12, 2012 at 10:22 pm

Hey Galen!

Thanks so much for your comment and offering an important caveat. I didn’t mean to offer my suggestion as a rigid rule — it was meant more as a jumping off point to start negotiations. 🙂

As others have brought up for discussion in the comments, it is SO important to elicit an agreement *before* an argument, about what works best for each partner. With that information, I hope any couple could find a way that works for them.

Here’s to finding creative solutions that meet everyone’s needs! Cheers!
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Chrysta Bairre February 13, 2012 at 8:21 am

Great insights and I completely agree! Sometimes I need to give myself room in an argument to take a deep thought and collect my peace of mind before I continue. If I feel triggered, my reaction may be disproportionate to the situation and getting some perspective is exactly what I need.

Of course it’s equally important to come back together and resolve conflict by sharing my feelings, thoughts, wants and needs with another person. If I just walk away and leave it at that, I haven’t accomplished much.

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Stacey February 13, 2012 at 9:30 am

Hi Chrysta!

Thanks so much for your kind and thoughtful reply! I love how you described your practice as a way to “collect peace of mind.” It really is so true that only we can do that for ourselves (even though it’s tempting to think that if *only* our partner would be more thoughtful *then* we could have peace), and your comment is a lovely reminder and testament to that.

Thanks again for sharing!


Andrew Walker February 27, 2012 at 3:34 am

Hi there.
Thanks for sharing this. I don’t think if it’s love, then you shouldn’t leave. In some cases, instead of staying, you need to leave! Leave for something better, it’s not a wrong thing to do anyway.
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Stacey February 27, 2012 at 8:53 am

Hi Andrew!

Thanks so much for your kind comment and for sharing your insight! I always love hearing from Lance’s readers, and it’s a special treat when a man chimes in!! (I don’t “see” many of them on my blog! 🙂 )
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Addie August 13, 2014 at 11:58 am

I can understand stepping back and taking time to cool off and return to your “wise mind” during a heated argument. But what do you do when your partner is obviously upset or angry but refuses to talk or explain what they are upset about? My girlfriend does this and will often just jump in the car and leave with no communication whatsoever. I try not to be angry or resentful, but it really hurts and it scares me. I don’t feel like its fair to shut me out and leave like that, but I also want to be respectful of her needs in that moment. Any thoughts or advice?


Stacey August 19, 2014 at 2:50 pm

Hi Addie!

Thanks so much for your thoughtful question! My heart really goes out to you and your girlfriend!

My approach is definitely not “one size fits all” and I encourage you to talk with your partner about your feelings when you’re both in a good place — not during an argument (or even within 24 hours of an argument).

Let her know you’d like to set up a time to talk with her about how you can both get your needs met — to feel connected and “on the same team” — even when you’re having an argument.

Set up the conversation to happen after you’ve had a nice dinner, or you’ve taken a nice walk outside…and then talk about how you’d like things to look during and after an argument.

Create what I call “strong agreements” and write them down (you’ll forget when you’re in the argument!) and then refer back to them and I know they will help!

I’m actually in the process of writing a full book on this topic, so I’ll have loads more suggestions to share with you! Just go to my website and sign up for my newsletter, and you’ll get more information.

Again, I really appreciate you took the time to write and I hope I could help!

All the best to you and your girlfriend!


Bren Murphy February 23, 2016 at 5:45 pm

Hi Stacey,
I’m a big fan of the wholoe process of pausing and making a considered response instead of reacting. It works for my wife and I and we have calmer, more “slow” if that is the right word? argument/discussions now.


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