This is a simple way of preventing escalation when there is conflict in relationships. This is very important in order to protect the individuals and the relationship.

In each person is a part that is calm, grounded, reasonable, mature, and constructive. When this part is present and available in each individual, communication can go well and even difficult situations and issues can be resolved. This calm part can be empathetic, can acknowledge things and apologize, can express its feelings calmly, make requests, and offer creative solutions. This is the best part of each person, and has access to these important communication skills.

Unfortunately, inside each person is also a part that is not calm or grounded, but rather can be angry, hurt, hurtful, jealous, suspicious, spiteful ,mean, fearful, secretive, guarded and. This insecure part is referred to by some as the ego. When these parts are present, a lot of hurt can and does occur to both parties involved, and to the relationship. The dynamic can escalate to being abusive, with raised voices, hurtful things being said that are not meant, name-calling, swearing, and sometimes things get physical. Hurtful things that are said and done cannot be undone or erased from people’s memory. The best that can happen is apologies and repair. These unpleasant interactions leave each person hurt and angry, leave a bitter taste in one’s mouth, create distance in the relationship, and erode at the health of the relationship and the loving feelings in it. From this place, it then takes more effort for individuals to try to bring more closeness and repair to the relationship.

Like a garden that is overrun by weeds, a relationship that is subjected to a lot of these negative interactions has little chance to flourish and thrive. Much better to prevent all that damage and hurt to the relationship and to each of the individuals, preventing the need for repair, and allowing all three (the two individuals and the relationship) to flourish. This can be achieved with an active dynamic called disengagement.

It can be used in any relationship: marriage, partners, parent and offspring, siblings, friendships etc.

How to disengage is simple, though people can find it challenging to do, for reasons that will be discussed a bit later. People just need to be aware of when they feel that the communication is not going well, and it doesn’t feel likely that it can be put back on track. One needs to pay attention to their feelings of frustration and anger, and notice the other person’s emotional state. In other words, one is monitoring which part of them and the other is there in the room, the calm grounded part or the ungrounded part. Obviously, if one is very angry, one should not initiate a communication with the other at that time. Instead, one needs to calm down and choose how to communicate effectively.

One should calmly suggest a disengagement.   This can be done in many ways. For example, one could say something like: “I am upset. It’s best if we don’t talk now.” “I don’t feel this is going very well right now. I’d like to talk later”; “Let’s talk later about this”; “How about we talk later?”; “I think we should disengage now”;“I feel myself getting upset-I need a time-out”.   Really the ways to handle this in a non- blameful and inviting manner are many. |Another option is to not speak but rather use a Time-out hand signal signal (one hand held horizontally above the other held vertically) in order to avoid saying anything angrily.

It is important to not point the finger at the other and say things like “You are too angry-I can’t talk to you.”

Disengaging calmly can be challenging when one is upset. If one disengages earlier rather than later before things have had a chance to deteriorate, that helps. Don’t be too hard on yourselves if at first you are not skillful in your disengagement. Disengaging at all when it’s needed is better than not disengaging. Then you can practice over time trying to do it skillfully.

Often, the individuals need some physical space to cool off. Sometimes, it is sufficient just to drop that particular topic of conversation, and switch to something that is not emotionally charged.

One key rule to be agreed up on ahead of time is that either individual can suggest disengagement, and the other person needs to go along with it, whether they agree that it’s a good idea or not, because one may perceive risk while another doesn’t, and we want to play it safe for damage control. One is not allowed to follow the other from room to room, refusing to disengage. If this unfortunate situation does occur, the one who feels the need for disengagement should unilaterally disengage . For example, if someone is out of control and won’t stop, one can hang up or leave the house. Again, one should aim at avoiding expressions of anger during disengagement, either verbal or nonverbal.

Disengagement should not be used to avoid communicating at all about things that need to be dealt with.

You want to ACT out of CHOICE, not REACT out of anger like a robot whose button got pushed, then later regret it. This requires being calm, so it can be true choice.

In the time after disengaging, individuals should work to calm themselves, and when grounded, prepare themselves for a constructive communication about the topic by imagining being the other person, and reflecting on what one can offer by way of empathy, acknowledgement, apology, and constructive solutions. . Research has shown that it commonly takes a minimum of 20 minutes for people to calm down, and sometimes much longer. It is important to be very honest with one’s self about whether one is truly grounded enough and ready to re-engage in a helpful manner or not. Because of a desire to re-engage, it is common to underestimate the amount of resudual upset present, or how easily it can increase with bringing up the topic again.  Also, it is important to read the other individual, and avoid suggesting re-engaging on the topic if he/she does not seem ready. It is always good to ask if the other individual is ready or needs more time.   If the decision is made to re-engage, and things start to go off the rails again, it is best to disengage again, regardless of how many times this has recurred. One must remember that the upset will very likely prevent resolution, and will very likely cause damage that we want to prevent. The fastest way to resolve things is to disengage as many times as necessary and communicate only when resolution is actually possible.

Often, after disengagement and calming, what seemed so important and urgent doesn’t even feel that it needs any revisiting, being seen as minor, and knowing that the other person cares and just forgot, and, was tired, and so on. Other times, it is a topic that is important to communicate about. Sometimes it is such a difficult topic for people that they need the help of a therapist to address it constructively and safely.

Disengagement is distinct from withdrawal, and it is important to differentiate between the two. Withdrawal is passive but hostile, such as when one walks off while the other is talking. It is distancing and angering, and it is very important to avoid it. Disengaging, on the other hand, is code for “I love you too much to risk hurting you, I love myself too much to risk getting hurt, and I care too much about our relationship to risk it being hurt, and I feel it’s too risky to talk now”. It is best if both parties know all about disengagement, so that one understands this and doesn’t misperceive it as withdrawal, and so either party can initiate it. However, prior agreement is not essential; if done skilfully one can use it with others who don’t know about it as well.

It is much better to end a toxic discussion as early as possible, rather than waiting until after damage has already been done. Be on the lookout for the feeling that things are not going well. People do not need to feel bad about needing to disengage. It doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with them or their relationship. We are all human, and we all have triggers.

Picture a vulnerable little chick who is precious and worthy of protection. This chick is each of the individuals involved and the relationship itself. There is a terrible storm, with high winds and big balls of hail, capable of really badly hurting the chick. This is the fighting, which is so hurtful and toxic.

Disengaging is putting a roof and a wall around the precious chick to protect it from the storm.

Obstacles to successful disengagement

Sometimes one feels a sense of urgency in communicating or resolving an issue. The vast majority of the time, there IS no urgency, and one needs to remind that the sense of urgency is not trustworthy. Also, one needs to remember that the fastest way to resolve it is to disengage and talk when resolution is possible, because resolution is not possible with the ungrounded parts present. Only damage will occur.

At times, the ungrounded “ego” wants to fight and win. It might want to hurt out of its anger, or might need to prove that it’s right, or have an urgent need to defend. The important thing to remember is that because the state of the relationship affects one’s happiness, a “win” is in fact a “lose”. The only real winning will be a win-win: the kind of mutual respect that results when difficult issues are constructively addressed, and that is only possible when both parties are grounded. The problem with anger is that it can be thought of as a boomerang. You toss it out, and it turns around and hits you in the face, so you end up getting hurt. When you behave angrily at someone, you are very likely to get either anger or withdrawal back, both of which are hurtful and distancing.

Sometimes, people believe that they need to be angry and loud in order to get heard. Nothing is further from the truth. When there is a lot of anger, people often shut down or put up a wall, and are relatively unable to hear what is being said. Or they focus on how they are being spoken to, and lose the content of your message. People are far more likely to really hear you and respond favourably if you are calm, kind and respectful, and you can be assertive without being aggressive.

Though it is very simple, I have seen disengagement make a profound difference in relationships, allowing people to feel more positively and loving towards each other, feeling more connected to each other, and appearing more attractive to each other. When disengagement followed by subsequent re-engagement at a better time is first used in a relationship, people can report that they feel that the person that they are in relationship with is much more reasonable than they had thought. This is because they are now only experiencing the reasonable part while being protected from the less reasonable part.   With the protection from storms, relationships have a chance to “spiral upwards”, with more healthy interactions building upon each other.

Conversely, not disengaging when it’s needed leads to a “spiralling downwards”, with negativity having a tendency to lead to more negativity.

So protect yourself, those you care about, and the relationships you’re in by doing your very best to disengage soon enough as skillfully as possible ie without anger. You will get better with practice.


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