Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and writer who specializes in helping clients—as well as their family members and professional caregivers—deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.

So, here we go again:

Some days are better than others. And today isn’t a great day. You’re just not feeling at your best. You know what it is, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

Your partner says something to you like: "It looks like you aren’t going to get around to helping get dinner started, so I better get moving.”

Uh oh. One of your buttons is pushed. “So I’m the only one who can get dinner started? Excuse me for having a bad day.”

Your partner responds. Tempers flare. And you’re off to the races.

Each of you knows where this is going. So why not stop it?

An argument can take on a life of its own. And take you and your partner along for the ride. Once it starts, it just seems to get out of control. You say what you think proves your point and should be the last word. Your partner responds with the same intention. So each last word leads to more words. Now, if you would just let me make the final point…

Yikes! We’re out of control here. Call in the fuzzy bunnies!

What? Well, not exactly.

“Fuzzy bunnies” is what you might call a tension breaker. Saying fuzzy bunnies doesn’t make a bit of sense in the middle of a heated exchange between you and your partner. That’s the point. In fact, fuzzy bunnies is pretty funny. So funny it’s probably going to ruin the (really bad) mood. That’s even more to the point.

How do you respond when your partner says fuzzy bunnies? You don’t.

Tension breakers like “fuzzy bunnies” are a great way to stop an argument when everything else you say seems to be adding to the conflict. They are especially effective during those arguments that can pop up when you aren’t feeling your best and your defenses are down. That’s life with a chronic condition. And a result, you find yourself getting swept up in the emotions—and the need to “win”—with the possibility of doing some real damage to your relationship. Fuzzy bunnies can help you to stop the runaway train.

Fuzzy bunnies is translated as: This isn’t going anywhere. We’ve been here before. This will just end in hurt feelings. Let’s have a laugh and get on with the day.

Let the fuzzy bunnies do the work. Here’s how:

Pick a tension breaker phrase

Fuzzy bunnies is a good one. Or a phrase that is likely to result in a laugh, or at least signal you both that it’s time to let it go. The name of your favorite meal, like spaghetti, or your least favorite vegetable, like spinach.

Agree on when to use the tension breaker

“Fuzzy bunnies” isn’t an excuse not to have a discussion that needs to happen. Sometimes we have to sit down as adults, talk about the issues, and come to an agreement. But when buttons get pushed, and emotions go from zero to sixty in five seconds flat, it may be time for a tension breaker to keep the room temperature livable so you can keep the conversation on track.

Be willing to blink first

Now that you’ve agreed to call in the fuzzy bunny squad to reduce the tension, somebody is going to have to be willing to make the call. If you feel like that’s your partner’s job, chances are your partner may be feeling like it’s your job. That’s a lose-lose situation. So be willing to be the one to take the first step.

Smile and breathe

A break in the tension isn’t an excuse to figure out your next line of attack. Hold that smile. Remind yourself of the big picture: You and your partner have built a great life together. Ask yourself: Is my point worth all these angry and hurtful words? And while you’re at it, also ask: Do I even remember my point?

Make a fresh start

Send the fuzzy bunnies back to their corner, and come out of yours. Move forward with a fresh perspective–forgiveness, compassion, and a generous dose of putting yourself in the other person’s place.

Remember: When one member of the family is living with a chronic condition, everybody in the family is living with a chronic condition. We are all in this together. So when communication starts to crumble, call in the fuzzy bunnies!

To learn more on this topic:

"Chronic Communication:" Finding Middle Ground
"Chronic Communication:" Accepting Help from Others
"Chronic Communication:" Focusing on Simple Joys