Disagreements do not need to be resolved immediately or before we go to bed. On the contrary. Often, when a fight with our partner escalates, our nervous system goes into overdrive, as we are flooded by currents of rage, hurt, panic and fear. Our muscles tighten, our stomachs clench, our hands begin to tremble. This is our primitive, parasympathetic nervous system in action, preparing us for fight or flight, a state in which we lose our capacity for rational thought.
In this state of emotional flooding, continuing to engage with our partner tends to trigger emotional flooding in him/her as well, causing more damage than repair of the initial disagreement. This is the perfect time for…. time-out. Therapist/author Terrence Real gives us a few pointers for taking a time-out:
1. Use time-outs as a circuit breaker
A time-out is a rip stop; it is the cord you pull to stop a runaway train, a brake, the thing you use to HALT an interaction that either has crossed over into, or is quickly crossing over into, haywire. Time-outs serve one function and one function only – to stop abruptly a psychologically violent or unconstructive interaction between you and your partner.
2. Take distance responsibly
Time-outs are obviously a form of distance-taking, and like all forms of distance-taking there are two ways to do it – provocatively or responsibly.
Responsible distance-taking has two pieces to it:
- an explanation;
- a promise of return: “This is why I am seeking distance and this is when I intend on coming back.”
Provocative distance-taking, by contrast, has neither – you just take the distance without any explanation or taking care of your partner’s anxieties about your leaving.
3. Don’t let yourself get stopped
Time-outs are unilateral. They are your last ditch effort to avoid immature words or actions. Unlike virtually every other couples’ communication tool, time-outs are a non-negotiable declaration: “I’m leaving.” You’re not asking permission and you cannot allow yourself to be stopped. Leave. Leave the room and go into another – a bedroom for example – and close the door.
If your partner won’t leave you alone, then leave the house. Walk around the block or stop for a cup of coffee. If your partner physically blocks you from leaving call the police, have them come to assist you. I have rarely met a couple where the police had to be called more than once.
4. Use check-ins at prescribed interval
Since you’re not using a time-out to punish your partner but rather to calm things down, it is critical that you check in with your partner from time to time in order to take the emotional temperature between you. The intervals I suggest are:
- an hour
- three hours – a half day
- a whole day – an overnight
Check-ins can be done in person, although cooler media might be advised. You can check on by phone or even by texting.
5. Return in good faith
End your time-out when you and your partner are both reseated enough in your adult selves to have a positive interaction again. Don’t return with a grudge or a chip on your shoulder – you’ll just start up again. Come back when you are truly ready to make peace.
6. Use a twenty-four hour moratorium on triggering topics
A mistake common mistake many couples make when they re-engage is to try to “process” what just happened. Bad idea. When you come back from a time-out, just make nice to each other. Give your partner a hug and a cup of tea. Do NOT try to sort through whatever the topic was that triggered the time out for twenty-four hours.
7. Know when to get help and use it.
If you find that a certain topic – kids, sex, money – ALWAYS triggers a nasty transaction, take that as a signal that you need some outside support in order to have that conversation constructively. Go to a minister or a mental health professional for help. If you find that heated, unhelpful transactions occur with enough regularity that you are frequently resorting to time-outs, you and your partner are likely in need of some ongoing couples’ counseling work.