The idea was that by using our chosen phrase right when we began to feel activated, we could press pause before we started raising our voices, saying something we didn’t mean, or otherwise acting in a hurtful way.
This technique was inspired by a recent course we took called "Turning Conflict Into Connection," which was developed and led by renowned couples therapist Esther Perel. My husband and I just completed the course at the end of 2023, and it equipped us with many new tools to navigate fights in a more productive way. While it took some practice to implement our safe word, we found that it was surprisingly helpful.
Here’s what we took away from the experience—and why experts recommend it.
Why a “safe word” for arguments can be helpful
“A safe word is a code word that lets us know that we are unraveling—going too far, too fast, and in the wrong direction,” explains Perel. “Think of it like a yellow or red light—it’s there to prevent you from saying something you might regret later on.”
Essentially, it gives you a moment to check in with yourself and process what’s happening internally before the discussion escalates past the point of no return.
Domenique Harrison, LMFT, LPCC, a couples therapist in private practice, notes that very often, relationship conflicts get out of hand because they’re not just about the current issue but resentments that have been building over time.
“Using a ‘safe word’ is one or both partners' way of saying: ‘I am not my best self right now. And because I cannot give you flexibility and warmth, our relationship compassion, and myself grace, I will step away and return to talk at another specified time,” Harrison says.
Harrison says that using a safe word effectively can also prevent you from resorting to unhelpful defense mechanisms that might only add fuel to the fire.
For example, let’s say every time you feel criticized, you have a tendency to deflect blame onto your partner. This frustrates them, which then causes the argument to escalate. Even if you’re aware of this pattern, it can be hard to stop in the moment. When your brain detects a potential threat, you respond so quickly that you don’t even have a moment to consider whether you’d like to react a different way—it’s as if you’re on autopilot.
In that scenario, having a safe word in your back pocket can serve as an important cue to take a pause. From there, you can take a break and return to the discussion better able to listen to your partner, show compassion for them, and express your perspective in a calm and non-accusatory way.
Something to keep in mind: A safe word is not about stopping an argument that’s not going your way, says Harrison. It’s a tool you use when it feels as if the conversation may soon become unproductive.
Our experience with argument safe words
My husband and I have tried a number of strategies over the years to help prevent arguments from escalating. We’re both still working through some unresolved complex trauma from childhood, and as a result, our fights often followed a certain pattern. That pattern looked something like this: He says or does something unknowingly triggering to me, my emotionally charged reaction to that triggers him into an anger response that then re-triggers me, and round and round we go.
We hoped that using a safe word would jolt us out of this vicious cycle, so we spend some time thinking about what the right word could be. Ideally, we wanted it to have some significance to us so we could remember it easily—and also inspire a little much-needed laughter in a tense situation.
According to Perel, humor is super helpful during conflict because it can help reset the nervous system so that you're able to get out of attack/defense mode. Studies have found that humor can have a powerful effect—reducing stress hormones, as well as alleviating discomfort and tension while improving communication. With that in mind, my husband and I chose a safe word that never fails to make us laugh: "Buffalo.” (It's an inside joke, don't ask.)
The agreement my husband and I made is that when one of us uses the safe word, that’s our cue to take a brief time-out—between five and 30 minutes—before resuming the conversation. During that time, we could do a breathing exercise, meditate, take a shower or bath, watch a funny YouTube video, play with our pets—whatever might help us get back to a calm and grounded state. We’d let each other know how much time we needed, and when that time was up, we’d reunite to revisit the conversation.
“For the partner who says the designated safe word during a conflict, the goal is to first take care of you,” says Harrison. “You are taking space to collect what you need so you can respond from a place of curiosity, reality, and integrity. The added bonus is that your partner also has the time to reflect as well.”
“A safe word allows you to take a step back and ask, ‘Do we want to air complaints, or do we want to solve a problem?’ ... ‘Are we venting at each other, or are we solving something together?’” —Esther Perel
Implementing the safe word, though, was easier said than done. The first time we fought after agreeing to this experiment, neither of us ever thought to use our safe word, and the argument escalated. Afterwards, I felt like a failure. Ultimately, though, I reminded myself that taking a new approach is challenging, especially when you’ve fallen into a pattern or routine the way we have.
During our next argument, I managed to use the safe word—huzzah!—but it was too late. By the time I remembered to say it (okay, I aggressively shouted it), my husband and I were already emotionally flooded, very much in attack mode.
“Safe words should be used early—not when people are heated up and you can sense that you’re entering into a stalemate,” says Perel. “Instead, call it early so it can be understood as a friendly, non-combative gesture.”
However, the third time we got into an argument, I thankfully had the thought to use it before things got out of control. We both stood in silence for a moment and looked at each other, and burst into hysterics. By the time we finished laughing, we truly forgot what we were fighting about.
That’s the beauty of a safe word. In some cases, merely uttering it provides enough of a mental shift that you may not need to take a time out—because you and your partner determine it’s not even a conflict worth having. In some cases, we were able to brush it off and move on. And let’s be real: choosing your battles is so important in any relationship.
“A safe word allows you to take a step back and ask, ‘Do we want to air complaints, or do we want to solve a problem?’ ‘Do we want to argue about how the house is messy, or talk about how we can keep it tidy?’ ‘Are we venting at each other, or are we solving something together?’” says Perel.
Admittedly, we haven’t quite mastered using the safe word every single time we fight. But practice makes perfect, right? I imagine that the more we remember to leverage this tool, the more it will become second nature.
How to try it
Eager to try this strategy in your own relationship? Here are some expert-recommended tips for using a safe word.
1. Choose a safe word that’s linked to a positive memory, invites levity, or inspires a teamwork mindset.
Harrison advises choosing a word or phrase that is non-controversial—and ideally a little silly. If it reminds you of a positive memory from your relationship, even better.
A safe word can be a phrase, too. Perel advises using a phrase that starts with “we” rather than “you” or “I” because it can remind you both that you’re a team working toward the same goal of resolving a conflict. For example, she suggests trying something like, “We’re entering the desert,” or “We’re short on water.”
“It’s more important that the safe word be more metaphorical than literal,” she adds. “I’ve seen couples get very creative—even playing or singing a few notes of a song as a way to de-escalate in the moment.”
2. Don’t wait too long to use your safe word.
As mentioned earlier, the timing of when you use your safe word is key to ensuring that this method is effective.
According to Harrison, these are some telltale signs that it might be time to press pause:
- You’re starting to feel numb or disconnected from your body
- Your heart rate is increasing
- Your breathing is shallow and/or rapid
- You have an urge to fight, flee the situation, or freeze
- You feel emotionally unsafe, or scared to share how you feel
- Your body feels tense, like it’s bracing for impact
If you feel hurt by something your partner said or did, and have the urge to hurt them back because you don’t know how to express your feelings in a healthy way, that’s another time when it’s a good idea to bust out your safe word.
3. Give some parameters for your time out.
When you use your safe word, don’t just storm out of the room and leave your partner hanging, says Harrison—this can cause confusion and anxiety.
Instead, Harrison advises acknowledging why you are using the safe word and making a promise to revisit the conversation after a designated amount of time. If you still feel like you’re in fight-or-flight mode after that time is up, check in with your partner and let them know how much longer you need before resuming the convo.
4. Develop a repair ritual that works for you.
“The person who said the safe word should lead the re-engagement effort,” says Harrison.
Remember: You don’t necessarily want to just pick up the conversation where it left off. Instead, Harrison says your focus should be on taking responsibility for any part you played in the conflict, showing curiosity rather than making assumptions about your partner’s behavior or intentions, and understanding each other’s perspectives. Not sure where to start? Try just naming what you were feeling when the argument started, and/or what you’re feeling now.
Most importantly, let them know what you need from them to move forward—whether that’s a hug, an apology, some emotional validation, or a plan for how you’ll both handle things differently next time.
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