Seven Guidelines for Safeguarding the Middle Ground (part 2)

No name calling. Speak honestly and judiciously. Develop patience. Think about what your partner says in terms of who your partner is. Have a Time-Out signal; use it as needed. Part 2 of a 3-part series.

Make Teacher Conferences Easier


Amy Flynn, my son’s beloved nursery school teacher, makes this pitch to her preschoolers year after year. Adjusted for adults it goes like this: If you are disgusted with something that is going on and call your mate a jerk, a bitch, a fat slob, irresponsible, idiotic, disgusting, and so on, the communication flow stops. And turning it back on will be a feat. When thinking before speaking, edit out the put¬downs. Basic as the guidelines may seem, under stress, sticking to them is a challenge for us all.


Although I caution above against blurting out perceptions that have not been sufficiently thought out, the abiding ways that you feel positive and negative need to be represented in your dialogue with your partner. Keeping dominant thoughts and feelings buried will not further the relationship.

The question is how to convey these messages. Particularly “hot” or inflamed topics require equal measures of finesse and forethought.

thumb is: you need to be known by and know your partner. And your partner needs to be known by and know you. Having said that, I believe you are entitled and in some instances obligated to keep certain things private if exposing them will only promote pain and serve no constructive purpose.

Think before you speak. Speak honestly and judiciously.


Find a way to take actual or metaphorical deep breaths when you are under stress. Practice the exercises, mini-exercises, and tips in this book; in varying ways they all help extend patience.

One of my goals is to help you think through your own messages and be as available as possible to listen to and think about your partner’s. Without patience, this important goal is drastically compromised. Patience within a specific talk and in the pacing of your dialogue overall can make a critical difference to relationship healing. Patience and humility blended together compose emotional stamina, which is fundamental to the creation of a secure long-term love relationship.

Paradoxically, patience functions as a catalyst for the process of mutual understanding; without patience dialogue cannot progress along its natural, stepwise course. Acts of impatience stem the flow of middle-ground communication, causing temporary paralysis or, worse, irreparable disruption. Don’t take on the impossible. Healing without patience? Impossible.


I’m not recommending that you relinquish your own perspective. You need to develop a “relationship” perspective that features a good grasp of how the situation is understood by your partner as well as by your self. This perspective generates and affirms the middle ground. Achieving this step takes determination. Remember understanding how your partner feels from within his or her purview does not mean you are acknowledging that this perspective is correct. You are not surrendering your point of view. You are simply acknowledging that it is not the only legitimate point of view.


Complex issues need to be broken down into manageable chunks. To do this, you’ve got to have a way to punctuate the boundaries between the related, but separate, stages of dialogue. Without a method for temporarily discontinuing the talk, getting restarted can feel too over whelming to even attempt.

Using time-outs can allow you a sense of control in the pacing of your dialogue. In the case of complex and/or difficult emotional issues this can make the difference between whether you can or can’t discuss an issue productively. Without a prearranged signal to allow a safe method for temporarily suspending the dialogue, restarting it will be more difficult.

Recommendation: Devise your time-out signal together if possible. It can be as simple as raising a finger on either hand or more elaborate if you wish. Prepare yourself to respond graciously if your partner should voice need for a time-out. Using time-outs does not mean that difficult issues go unaddressed. It does mean that partners have to work as a team to keep the flow of conversation going not simply within a single talk but between talks as well. Carve a niche in your relationship that honors this dimension of awareness and sensitivity.

Illustrating the Time-Out

Vickie and Damian were in the midst of a heated and often explosive marital impasse when they began couples’ therapy with me. Damian acknowledged having had an affair but said that, if it were possible, he wanted to work out his relationship with Vickie.

Vickie felt unable to talk with him about anything without becoming enraged and verbally abusive. She seemed to become equally enraged when accusing him of leaving the cap off the tooth-paste as when discussing his having had the affair. She described her situation this way: “I’m unwilling to open any of this up, even though I realize that without discussing it, it’s festering and the anger is going to continue and probably grow. I keep feeling that any attempt at talking about our feelings may bring the relationship to an end.”

Vickie now was hyper-sensitized to any interaction that was angry or even threatened to become angry. To avoid overreacting, she tried to avoid communicating completely. This created its own set of problems.

I coached Vickie and Damian to devise a time-out signal. Vickie was able to begin talking about some of what was on her mind. Points of connection began to be reestablished. Using these time-outs, Vickie was able to slow herself down. Knowing that she could signal a time-out bolstered Vickie’s sense of self-control in the couple’s dialogue.

New understandings began to grow. After a time-out, Vickie could get in touch with how hurt she was and talk about these feelings rather than railing about the toothpaste cap or some other unfinished chore. Damian, to his credit, was able to listen to her, take in the depth of pain she was experiencing.

Reciprocally, Damian sometimes felt confused about some of the ambivalent feelings that had led him to have an affair. Although he did not feel good about having betrayed Vickie, he harbored anger toward her for her part in creating the situation that had, in his words, “made him look outside the relationship for sex and affection.” He felt that he could have made different choices but, at the same time, also felt Vickie could have done a better job of handling her own options. At times, he used the time-out signal to collect himself, to differentiate between what needed to be discussed with Vickie and what he needed to work through privately.

This simple technique calling a time out kept their interactions safer. They needed their dialogue to resume gradually, and the time outs provided structure that allowed them to regulate the rhythm and intensity of their talks.

Can following the guidelines in this chapter save a floundering relationship? The short answer is yes. If you follow them consistently, you will see results.

The Power Of Middle Ground

This article was adapted with permission from The Power Of Middle Ground: A Couples Guide to Renewing Your Relationship copyright © 2009 by Marty Babits, LCSW, BCD (New York, NY) Pometheus Books 59 John Glenn Drive, Amherts, New York 14228-2119 Marty Babits, LCSW, BCD (New York, NY), is a psychotherapist in private practice and a member of the Executive Supervisory Committee of FACTS (the Family and Couples Treatment Service) of the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy.


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