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Time-Out Signals: What's Your Marriage Problem Solver?

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Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow isn't the only one who finds the occasional time-out hand signal helpful. Researchers say that having a pre-arranged signal is one of the most important tricks to navigating the dangerous waters of arguments with your mate. In some cases, it can be the only thing that keeps a verbal dispute from turning physical.

Truth is, every couple disagrees -- some more frequently and more venomously than others. And as an argument escalates, the barbs get sharper, the comments cause deeper wounds and it becomes more a battle of emotional maiming than a conflict you actually hope to resolve. The best thing a fighting couple can do is stop before permanent damage occurs. But how do you become the partner who waves the red flag of "enough" without it looking like the white flag of surrender?

You establish a signal between you ahead of time, and when one partner reaches the breaking point, flash it. It signifies not concession to the argument, but simply, "I need a break. We are going too far and I want us to stop before one of us gets hurt." The signal can be verbal or nonverbal. In the case of one couple, calling out "chickpea" seems to do the trick.

Katie Ramsburgh, a marriage and family therapist with The Gottman Institute, said the institute's research has shown that in relationships where the couple had developed both verbal and nonverbal cues to let the other one know they needed a break, the couples were better able to "self-soothe, slow down and stop distress-maintaining thoughts." Ramsburgh said that after a break of 20 minutes or more, these couples were able to come back to the conversation.

Some couples use a “stop” hand signal, like a traffic cop, she said. Others use a time-out signal, like a referee. "Any pre-agreed upon signal will work," said Ramsburgh, who hastens to add that there are some "obvious" ones you wouldn't want to use. Think M.I.A. at the Super Bowl.

Does something this simple actually work?

"Yes," she said. "It works especially well if the couple has had a conversation about the cue when they are outside of the conflict conversation. Having a pre-agreed upon hand gesture or cue to let each other know that you need a break is crucial." There is an entire exercise devoted to this in the Gottman couples workshop.

The gesture serves as a repair technique. It slows down the momentum of the conflict and signals your partner that the conversation has gotten out of control. Ramsburgh adds, "It says: I am emotionally flooded. I am not able to continue this conversation right now. It does not feel safe to me. Please, let’s take a break."

Just turning your back and walking out the room, while suggesting that one person is no longer interested in continuing the conflict, won't cut it. In fact, walking out on an argument can actually escalate it.

Even a Carol Burnett-like tug on the left ear would serve the purpose. Here are some signals from the bedrooms of the Huffington Post staff to get the ball rolling:

One colleague gives his girlfriend a blank stare and raises his eyebrow. Another says they simply say the word "halt," which either has the right to do "if we're hungry, tired or drunk." And then, of course, there's "chickpea."

But our favorite technique of ringing the fight bell is literally ringing the fight bell.

Gail and Alec Wiggin of Connecticut, married for almost 25 years and in business together, resort to using a bowl bell (like this one), which she says, once rung has "absolute authority" to resolve the conflict. "The deal is this," said Gail, "no matter WHAT the situation, no matter WHAT has been said by either of us, when this signal enters the fray, each party must lay down arms immediately and unconditionally. The combat must cease -- just like that. Period. Furthermore, no matter what, apologies must follow on each side. AND no lingering resentments will be tolerated. It must be as though a giant eraser came down from the sky and just wiped out all the yuck."

What's your signal?