Too mad to talk? The In’s and Out’s of Using a Time-Out in Your Relationship

So, my favorite statistic in the relationship world (which I recognize is a really nerdy thing to say) is that approximately 96 percent of conversations end the same way that they start.  

The reason I like this statistic is because of how predictable it makes our interactions. If a conversation starts in a critical tone it will end with a critical tone. A conversation that starts respectufully will progress thoughtfully and productively.

I find that this statistic is most important to remember when we are at our angriest – in those moments when we are so upset (both psychologically and physiologically) that we are only able to react in one of three ways: fight, flight, or freeze.  This state is called flooding, and it makes addressing marital conflict particularly difficult.

When you are flooded, the last thing you want to do is start or continue a conversation. There is only one thing to do that will make sure you don’t escalate into a fight. 

It’s called a Time-Out.

Here me out!  I know we tend to think of time-out’s as a punitive action used with our kids.  But it’s actually an essential skill for adult couples to practice and master in order to have productive conversations instead of hurtful fights. 

Agreeing to taking a time-out affords you and your partner the opportunity to reduce the level of volatility in your conversation, and to address conflict effectively.

It’s not worth taking the risk of saying things to your partner that you cannot take back.

Interested?  I thought so….

So, before we talk about how to do this, let’s talk about the two assumptions that you and your partner agree to prior to establishing your own time-out practices:

  1. Agree to call a time-out only on yourself, and not your partner.  Think about how you would feel if your partner said, “You look like you need a time-out.” (It never goes well.)  If you feel your partner is flooding, call a time-out on yourself, so that you both can have a constructive dialogue.
  2. Agree that time-outs are not to be used to avoid discussing a conflict.  If a topic is a problem for one partner, it is a problem for both.  Agreeing to time-out practices in your relationship is a commitment that you will not attempt to permanently table a topic.

If you’re on board with those two assumptions, let’s talk logistics.  Here’s how it’s done:

  1. Identify a signal.  If you are too flooded to make a verbal statement of a need for a time-out, consider other ways of letting your partner know what you are doing (e.g., make a T with your hands).  This lets your partner know that you are not just abandoning the conversation, or the relationship all together.
  2. Identify length of time.  The typical flooded individual requires 20 minutes to return to a calm state.  General guidelines suggest that effective time-out’s are at least 20 minutes and no longer than 24 hours.  It’s best to identify how long you will need prior to taking your time-out so that you both know in advance when the reconnection will happen.
  3. Use your time effectively. When you are in your time-out, this is a time to self-soothe and not ruminate. It’s time to call on some of those basic coping skills that can help you calm down.  Common methods of de-escalation include deep breathing, progressive relaxation, watching TV, sketching, listening to music, or going for a walk… just to name a few.
  4. Identify a location.  It’s a good idea to talk about potential places that you can go so that you are able to calm yourself down.  Then, once a time-out is called, allow your partner their space to do so in the location of their choice.  That means you don’t follow them, and they do not follow you.  Leave each other alone!

After the allotted time, you’re ready to come back and chat – you’ve now got one of four options:

  1. Continue the conversation.  
  2. Agree to drop the conversation. 
  3. Agree to table the conversation.  
  4. Call another time-out if none of the other three is possible.

Once you return to the topic, you both will be calmer and remember that you are on the same team. You’ll be more likely to talk to one another as people who like one another rather than adversaries.

I recognize that this is not an easy skill to practice or enact.  If you discuss these guidelines with your partner when you are not in the midst of a conflict, you are likely to have less intense fights with quicker, longer-lasting repairs.

For more information about conflict management, here is a self-assessment quiz to see what kind of conflict management style you have. Quiz: What’s Your Preferred Conflict Style?