Just because you got the invite to fight doesn’t mean you need to participate

We currently have two kittens in our house. Goose, the one I sweet-talked my partner into from a litter of fosters we had early this spring, and Shaggy, who is a precious and wonderful little guy, but whom we aren’t going to keep (mostly so I can continue to try to pretend I’m not a crazy cat lady).

They’re the best of buddies right now, and they’re quite hilarious to watch when they’re in a roughhousing mood. But there’s also something about boundaries they are really good at demonstrating.

Inevitably, once or twice a day, one will be in the mood for a good tussle, while the other just wants to nap. Or chase a wad of paper around. Or sit in a sunbeam and slow-blink. And the fighter will do everything he can to bait the other into the conflict, including full-on attack mode with a throat lunge.

Sometimes it works, and they’re off to the boxing ring. At other times, it just doesn’t. The one who doesn’t want to engage will lie there impervious to the drama, get up and slowly meander off, or come sit beside me as they know I won’t tolerate a feline WWF brawl on my lap.

When our priorities are different, our energy levels are different, or it’s not our fight to have, we don’t have to engage. 

But many of us do consistently engage. And it can be useful to explore why, because often it’s not serving us or the relationship. A hallmark of psychological health is conscious flexibility in our responses to our context — meaning that we practice taking a second to pause, reflect, and then intentionally choose our response to the situation rather than automatically and habitually jumping in with two feet (or two fists) as a reaction to the situation.  

Some ways to create a pause: 

  • “Please hold that thought — I’ll be right back.”
  • “Give me a minute to think this through.”
  • Take some deep breaths and stay quiet. Sometimes this is all it takes. 

Some questions to ask yourself in the pause:

  • What’s motivating me to respond? 
  • Does that motivation really serve me?
  • Does that motivation serve the relationship with this person?
  • Is right now — this time, setting, tone, my energy level, and my mood — going to help or hurt this conversation?
  • Is the person inviting me to the conflict able to hear me out right now? 
  • Am I able to hear them out right now?
  • Is this even my fight to have? Is this invite misdirected and actually belongs to someone or something else? 

Experiment with not engaging and observe what comes up for you. This may mean you physically leave in order to stay out of your habitual reaction, and that’s okay.

  • “I’m not going to fight with you about this. When you’re calm, I’m happy to talk.” 
  • “I’ve noticed my habit is to jump right into things with you, and I’m going to try something different and not do that right now.”
  • “I’m not up for this today, and I’m not going to do this with you.”
  • “I love you, and I care about this, and I don’t think us going down this path right now is going to help us.”

You can always return to the topic later if it’s important. And it can be at a time when you and the other person are not leading with claws and fangs.  

  • “I’ve been thinking about what you said…”
  • “Yesterday I wasn’t up for that convo but now I am.”
  • “I’d like to talk about XYZ; is now a good time?”

Whether it’s an invitation from your partner, your angsty teen, or your coworker, things can go from a tense tussle to productive connection and problem solving with space and time. Allow yourself the chance to choose thoughtful disengaging instead of an autopilot fight response when it serves you and the situation and see what happens.