Couples are sometimes resistant to the idea of taking a time out when they experience a heated conflict. However, research shows that time outs can be an effective strategy. Learning how to structure a time out can help couples make it an effective tool.
Concerns about ‘Walking Away’
Sometimes couples don’t want to walk away during an argument. This can be because at least one person feels they need to resolve the problem “right now.” However, staying to discuss an issue when emotions are elevated is not likely to be helpful. When people feel angry, they are less likely to be able to constructively problem-solve.
Other times, one person won’t allow their spouse to walk away. They may follow their partner if an attempt is made. They may continue to try and talk things out. Sometimes people feel their partner is abandoning them when they feel most distressed.
The Dangers of Not Taking a Time Out
When one or both people are feeling angry, their behaviors may escalate. They may say or do things they later regret. Yelling, name calling, or repeating the same points over and over aren’t productive. When people feel very angry, they are less likely to be able to listen to their partner and truly hear what is being said. They are also not in an emotional place to be able to offer logical arguments and make healthy decisions.
Benefits of Time Out
Time outs allow each person the ability to calm down. When one partner walks away, the separation from the argument can help people think more clearly. As the person’s emotions return to a more relaxed state, it becomes easier to see the problem from different angles and it can become easier to communicate more effectively.
Structuring a Time Out
In order for time outs to be effective, there needs to be a plan. Walking away from an argument isn’t going to solve a problem. It is important to develop a plan that will address how to arrive at a solution where both people can approach the problem again.
A structured time out should include a plan of how one partner can walk away, with assurance that the other partner will not follow. For example, one person can signal the other that they need a time out. The signal might include a word or a gesture that has already been decided up on. The other partner will allow them to exit from the situation without attempting to continue the argument.
Each partner can spend approximately 30 minutes calming down. For people who have difficulty calming down, it may make sense to have a structured plan of how to calm down. Activities such as taking a walk, listening to music, or engaging in a pleasurable activity may be helpful.
After 30 minutes each partner can write down their feelings in a letter. The letter should avoid attacking or insulting the other person. Instead, it can outline what the person feels and what the person wants to happen. The couple can then exchange letters with the agreement that they will read the letters within the next 24 hours and they can schedule a time to discuss the letters.
The discussion can start out with some conversation about each person’s understanding of the other person’s letter. Instead of immediately attacking the problem again, it is important to ensure you understand what your spouse says. For example, “I heard you say that it hurts your feelings when I don’t call you when I’m going to work late and you want me to start calling you when I’m going to be more than 10 minutes late.” This would help start out a discussion to ensure that both partners are clear with what the other person is saying.
Creating Your Own Time Out Plan
It is important for each couple to develop their own time out plan. Develop a plan based on strategies that will work for you and will help you resolve your conflict when both of you are feeling calmer. This can help you to learn how to respect one another’s opinions and communicate your feelings more effectively. If you and your partner need help developing a plan then counseling is also an option.