Have you ever gotten in an argument with someone you love? Have you ever lost your temper? Ever punched a hole in the wall? I have.

Relationship difficulties are a reality. Even the best relationships include conflict. But this isn’t necessarily bad news.  Indeed, I have found relationship conflict can be a doorway to personal growth and deeper connection. But it can also lead to stress, frustration, resentment and eventually break-up. So, the level of skill with which we handle conflict is really important!

I would like to share a tool that I’ve learned, called HALT. This stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. The idea is this: Don’t try to work out relationship issues if you are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. If you and your loved one are starting into an argument and one of you notices that either of you are in one of these states, just yell out “Halt!” The other will know what this means.

It means “I want to work through this with you, but I need to take care of myself so that I can be fully present for the work.”

So, why would you call Halt? You might think: “So what if I’m hungry?! When my partner and I need to work something out, I want to work it out! Sometimes people are hungry or lonely, or whatever but they still need to communicate to their partner, right?”

To some people, it may seem extreme or evasive to call off a discussion just because of this criteria, but here is the thing: Productive relationship conversations are all but impossible when one or both of you are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. Forcing the discussion will likely just cause more hurt, more resentment, more distance between the two of you.

This is the maddening, “catch-22” of relationship conflict: It is fundamentally a call for personal growth from one, or usually both parties, but it most often comes up at a time when one (or usually both) parties are incapable of personal growth (i.e. Angry, annoyed, “Triggered”, etc.). For this reason, HALT is extremely useful.

Let’s Take a look at each of the HALT letters individually.

If you are hungry, your mind is in your reptilian brain. Your brain is attracted to quick fixes and simple actions so that it can get food, shelter, or pleasure. Also, if you are like me, you often get “hangry” or angry due to hunger. Neither of these states are conducive to the kind of deep contemplative consideration that is required for working through relationship difficulties.

If you are angry, it will be extremely difficult to see any opposing viewpoints and your partner will likely feel under attack and become defensive. This may seem obvious, but so many of us still “get into it” with our loved one and continue to angrily “bang our heads against the wall” of relationship disagreements (I am guilty as charged). If you or your partner are angry, y’all are in “fight or flight” mode. Your blood is flooded with cortisol and adrenaline. Your physical body is looking to either run away or do harm to those around you. You guessed it, this is not a healthy state from which to work on relationship disagreements.

Being lonely may seem like one of the less obvious reasons to HALT. It is not an outwardly aggressive feeling, nor is it malnourished. But it is a state of feeling isolated and lacking in human connection. Relationship disagreements require you to see the other person’s perspective. If you cannot see past your own suffering, the content of a discussion will appear as an attack on your wounded state. If you are lonely, HALT.

Being tired is no place to work through relationship issues. Anybody who is a parent knows that kids get grumpy when they are tired. Our nervous systems are the same today as when we were children. We may be better at hiding the symptoms but the same tendency still exists. When we are tired, our brains are not working at full capacity, so we cannot be fully present for any kind of deep emotional discussion.

In addition to the classic “HALT”, I like to add “HALTID“. The extra “I” is for “Intoxicated” (high), and the “D” is for “Drunk”. Don’t try to work out relationship issues if you are drunk or high. I hope this is obvious, but it can be easy to forget when we’re either drunk or high (as impaired judgment is one of the characteristics of these states). So do your best to remember HALTID. Relationship issues are not solved when you are drunk or high.

The good news is that if you and your partner get into arguments, it does not mean your relationship is doomed. Indeed, it’s probably a sign that your relationship is working exactly as it is supposed to.

In a healthy relationship, difficult things should come up. Contrary to popular belief, relationships don’t exist to make us happy, they exist to make us better. We all have insecurities, fears, isolating judgements, self abuses, repressed feelings, and ways in which we fail to fully love ourselves or each-other. With intimate relationship, these self abuses are inflicted on the other either directly or indirectly, and if it’s a healthy relationship the other is going to say something.

My wife regularly calls me out. Sometimes this is explicit, “Why don’t you want to talk about (x)”. Other times she might just say that something I did hurt her. But do I like being called out, or as I often perceive it “being accused”? No! my first reaction is usually to be defensive, or get flat out angry. Sometimes I rage and throw stuff or hit the wall (and I’m kind of ashamed of it). This is when HALT is so useful.

It’s hard to look at this stuff. I like to think I have it all figured out. It’s convenient to think it’s just her projections or misunderstanding. But I have learned to trust when she says something doesn’t feel right. She may not be able to articulate exactly what it is, or why, but there is always opportunity for my own reflection and growth. HALT allows me time to reflect, relax, forgive and come back to it. In my experience, personal growth requires all of my patience, awareness, and consideration. It does not happen when I’m Angry. It does not happen when I’m tired.

Relationship disagreements are an opportunity for growth from both parties. That opportunity needs to be honored with fully present participants. HALT allows couples to schedule the work for when they are prepared for the challenge.

So take HALT, “clip it onto your tool-belt”, share it with your partner, and see if it helps.

Extra Credit: Taking the HALT philosophy further, my wife and I have tried to only work through relationship difficulties while cuddling. Crazy? Awesome? Yes. It is sometimes really hard to do, but can be extremely useful. Cuddling causes the body to release oxytocin which lowers stress, promotes emotional bonding, increases social skills, and does a bunch of other cool things. If my wife and I are unable to cuddle, chances are one or both of us are probably angry, hungry, etc. This means we need to get some food, rest, forgive, or whatever needs to happen to take care of that HALT condition before we try to work things out.

-Galen Erickson


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