Question: Yangki, I want to begin by saying this is by far the best relationship blog out there. I had to say that so that my next comment in taken within context. Personally, I think that when emotions are high the chances of making significant progress with your ex is almost non-existent. Communication under these circumstances is likely to make the situation worse rather than better. It may be necessary to have a cool off down period. What do you think about no contact vs. cool off period after a break-up?
Yangki’s Answer: I agree 100%. In some situations, it may be necessary to take time to “cool off” before attempting to resolve an issue. But there is a difference between “no contact” and a “cool off” period after a break-up.
1. Forced rule Vs An organic response to distress
No contact is a reaction to a break-up or situation you don’t like or find upsetting. It’s not an organic response because making sure you follow the strict rules of no contact is more important than listening to your own feelings and needs. During this period they try as much as possible not to break the no contact rule and ignore any attempts their ex makes to reach out. The main concern is “respecting” the no contact period and making sure that their ex does not “distract” them from ‘no contact”. If your ex contacts you and you respond, it is a violation of the ‘no contact rule”. Sometimes it’s no longer about the break-up, but about the no contact rule.
A ‘cool off’ period after a break-up is an organic response to an overload on your emotional system (and mental health) and ability to deal with the situation in a healthy and constructive way. You’re responding to what you need to feel safe and choosing your words and actions based on what you need at the time and for how long you need it instead of following some dogmatic rule. A ‘cool off’ period after a break-up is not to see how long you can go without contacting your ex or how long it’ll take your ex to contact you. The goal of a cool off period is to process your emotions so you can try to resolve the issue as soon as possible. There is no specified time period or rule for “cool off” period. The amount of time and how you go about it is driven by what you need at the time.
The amount of time and how you go about the cool off period also takes into consideration your ex’s feelings and needs at the time. This is different from no contact where you don’t even have to communicate that you’re going no contact (just ignore them) or show any empathy or compassion as to how it makes your ex.
The cool off period communicates a level of empathy that you’d want someone else to show you if the tables were turned, and and that’s why it’s important to communicate:
- How long the “cool off” period” is going to be
- What the boundaries during this time are (is there going to be contact and what kind)
- How you re-engage (who reaches out and where do you go from there)
In the case that the two of you cannot come to an agreement on how long the “cool off period” after a break-up is going to be; my suggestion is 4 -10 days of no communication, two weeks at most. This is a reasonable time before you check-in on each other. Keep in mind that a check-in after a break-up is not to try to get back your ex; a check-in after a break-up is to touch base and see how the other is doing, and show you still care about them.
The point is for each of you to go into the ‘cool of period” feeling confident that at such and such a time, you will re-engage and this is how you will do it. You both feel good about it and both feel that the relationship is safe. The time “apart” will not negatively impact your chances of trying to make things work again.
In my eBook Dating your ex I outline how to negotiate and agree on the cool off period. What to say to your ex if you are the one asking for a cool off period etc.
2. Avoidance coping Vs Connectedness
Someone doing ‘no contact’ is mostly concerned about “protecting themselves” and avoiding feeling the pain of a break-up and chooses avoidance coping to achieve that.
Elizabeth Scott describes avoidance coping—also known as avoidant coping, avoidance behaviors, and escape coping as a maladaptive form of coping in which a person changes their behaviour to avoid thinking about, feeling, or doing difficult things.
No contact is avoiding situations where you might need to deal directly with your own feelings and emotions, and your ex’s feeling and emotions. And it’s true that there are times and circumstances when it is necessary to avoid dealing directly with feelings and emotions; but only as a short-term response to the problem.
When used as a solution to a problem (i.e. I’m feeling overwhelmed by emotions, the solution is no contact); avoidance coping not only creates more distance, it affects self-confidence in a major way. Most notably a feeling of being stuck and feeling unsure how to interreact with an ex after no contact for so long. Most people after ‘no contact’ find themselves feeling even more anxious about contacting their ex. “What do I say?”. ‘Should I reach by text, write a letter or send a short video message?”
When you take time to cool off, you are thinking of ways that fulfill connectedness goals. Your biggest concern is preserving the relationship or connection you have/had. You are not necessarily dealing with the problem but a cool off period helps you reframe how you approach the problem differently. You understand that any actions you take will affect the current connection and/or future attempts to re-establish or strengthen connection, and take steps to preserve your connection.
It’s this ability to look beyond current feelings and self-preservation and focus on what’s important long term and for the future that separates individuals with an insecure attachment style from securely attached individuals.
I am not saying don’t take measures to protect yourself; doing so is irresponsible and reckless. I am saying there are better ways to “protect yourself” that also protect your connection or relationship. As they say, don’t burn the bridge you might one day need to cross back on the other side.
3. Trigger attachment anxiety Vs. make an ex feel safe
This is probably the biggest difference of all. The person doing ‘no contact’ is banking on ‘no contact’ triggering their ex’s attachment anxiety.
Attachment anxiety is characterized by an intense fear of abandonment and rejection. Individuals high on attachment anxiety become extremely distressed when separated from an attachment figure. This sets off a variety of panicky contact/connection-seeking behaviours. If the attachment figure is not responsive, the attachment system remains fully or partially activated.
The contact/connection-seeking behaviours of an anxious-preoccupied and fearful avoidant ex gives the person doing ‘no contact’ some satisfaction. They feel vindicated, validated and valued. This is why they ask:
- “Is my ex missing me?”
- “Will not contacting my ex make them think of me?”
- “How long before my ex misses/contacts me?”. Etc.
When you take time to cool off, it’s about you. You are not trying to cause your ex anxiety, distress or anguish. Quite the opposite, you make sure that your ex knows that the “cool off” period does not mean you are abandoning them or punishing them for the break-up. You need to briefly step away from the situation so you can deal with your feelings and emotions, so you can engage and communicate more constructively. If at any time your ex needs to reach out, you will be available and responsive to reassure them and make them feel safe and secure.
What would someone with a secure attachment style do?
No contact is cutting off communication and connection and distancing from your ex, a cool off period is protecting your connection in a way that feels safe for both of you – and without creating even more distance between the two of you. The “cool off period” answers the question. “What would someone with a secure attachment style do if they wanted their ex back, but needed space and time to deal with their emotions?” And if you are wondering. YES, someone with a securely attachment style goes through the same pain of a break-up, they just handle it differently.
A secure attachment is about providing a sense of safety and security by soothing distress and fostering a sense of calm in an empathetic way and with appropriate boundaries. This is the opposite of what ‘no contact” does. To make the cool off period feel safe and not seem like you’re asking for no contact or having a closure texting, phone or in-person conversation, its very important to be very clear on 1) how long the “cool off” period” is going to be, 2) will there contact during this time and what kind, and 3) how you re-engage (who reaches out and where do you go from there). If these things are not clearly communicated, there is a chance an ex will take it as you going no contact or saying goodbye and asking for closure and react accordingly.
What a conversation about needing time to cool off is and isn’t
A request for a cool period doesn’t include a conversation about what you wanted and needed and did not get (e.g. getting back together) or even needing time and space to heal and work on yourself. Depending on how much time you’re saying you need, this may sound more like no contact than a request for a cool off period especially if you’re dealing with an ex with an anxious attachment or fearful avoidant leaning anxious. If it’s not clear to them that this is not “no contact”, they may react like you are asking for no contact or even closure.
A request for a cool off period also doesn’t include talking about memories in a sort of “thank you for the memories we shared” way. This is more of a closure conversation than a request for a cool off period. You are not ending anything so don’t make it sound like this may be the last time you speak to each other. If the thought of not being plugged into your ex for a few days makes you so emotional that it feels like a goodbye, then you really need to work on your anxious attachment ASAP. You’re likely more co-dependent than you realize or are willing to admit to yourself.
A request for a cool off period is about you feeling emotionally overwhelmed and needing a few hours or days to self-regulate. It’s important that your ex knows that nothing is changing between the two of you and will be able t fully re-engage after the cool off period.
You can learn to be securely attached by making small adjustments that provide security and safety. And you can start by providing a sense of safety and security after a break-up. And instead of trying to make your ex regret the break-up, try to foster a sense of calm but with appropriate boundaries.