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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 percentof all conversations end the same way that they start.  The reason I like this statistic is because of how predictable it makes our interactions with others.  It essentially means that you will VERY likely exit a conversation with your partner in the same way in which you entered it.

I find that this statistic is most important to remember when we are at our angriest – in those moments in which 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.

If you enter into a conflict with your partner flooded, or become so during a conflict conversation, there is a way to stop the interaction before you fall victim to ending your conversation flooded.  

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 I really like to think of it as a really essential skill for those of us that need time to self-soothe before we can enter (or resume) a conversation.  Time-out is, in-and-of-itself, a way of communicating to your partner that you want to hear and understand their perspective at a time when you are calm enough to do so.  Agreeing to taking a time-out affords you and your partner the opportunity to reduce the level of volatility of conflict in your relationship, and to address conflict effectively rather than 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 PRIORto establishing your own time-out practices:

  1. Agree to call a time-out only on yourself, and not your partner.  I often tell people – think about how you would feel if your partner said to you “you look like you need a time-out…” It never goes well.  Monitor your own physiological and psychological experience, and if you feel your partner is flooding, call a time-out on yourself before you mirror their flooded state.
  2. Agree that time-out’s are not to be used to avoid discussing a conflict.  If a topic is a problem for one partner, it is now a problem for both.  Part of agreeing to time-out practices in your relationship is the assumption that you will not use them as a means of permanently tabling 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., making the time-out symbol 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 25 minutes to return to a calm state.  General guidelines suggest that effective time-out’s are at least 30 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 your partner knows when they are welcome to reconnect with you.
    1. Remember, 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.  These skills can be almost anything, and are very personal for each individual.  Common methods of de-escalation I have encountered are tactics such as deep breathing, progressive relaxation, watching TV, sketching, listening to music, going for a walk… the possibilities are endless.
  3. Identify a location.  It might be alarming for your partner if you call a time-out, then leave the home to take a drive.  They also might feel that their space to de-escalate is encroached if they are somewhere in the home with you.  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!

So, you’re ready to come back and chat – you’ve now got one of four options:

  1. You can continue the conversation.  Make sure that you are ready to both speak calmly and listen to understand one another.
  2. You can agree to drop the conversation. In this case, both partners must agree that the topic is no longer relevant and to drop it. 
  3. You can agree to table the conversation.  This is most likely necessary in situations such as when you are ending your time-out late at night and have an early morning for work the next day, or when you are trying to avoid having a difficult conversation in front of your children. Tabling a conversation is most effective when you set a specific day and time you are tabling the conversation to – do not say we will talk about this tomorrow, but rather suggest that you discuss it over lunch or after the kids go to bed tomorrow night.
  4. You can call another time-out.  Some topics are more triggering for us than others, and it is really hard to de-escalate from those conflicts. Perhaps the self-soothing tactics that we tried didn’t work.  For whatever the reason, there is no shame or problem in calling another time-out.

Regardless of when you chose to resume the conversation, you are now ideally calm enough to have it.  As such, since you entered calm, you can be about 96% confident that you are likely to end the conversation calm as well. This allows for you to not only carefully choose your own words so as not to hurt your partner, but also to listen with intent to understand to your partner’s perspective.

I recognize that this is not an easy skill to practice or enact.  If you feel like this is something that your relationship might benefit from, consider discussing these guidelines with your partner so that they can support you and the relationship in those moments as you learn to implement these practices.

And, as always, if you feel like you are still struggling to manage those really difficult conversations and conflicts, you are welcome to contact us to see if couples’ therapy might be right for you.

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