If you don’t take a relationship timeout when you or your partner really need it…you will end up being disconnected. – Beth Rogerson

As we know relationship arguments can escalate quickly. When our hot buttons get pushed, we often begin to attack each other.  Kindness and civility go out the window. Since we are feeling threatened, conflict can even reach a point of verbal or physical abuse.

One of the best ways to prevent your fights from escalating out of control is to take an effective time-out.  A well-timed break must happen before partners start to feel overwhelmed. When either of you are emotionally flooded, the part of the brain that generates loving feelings shuts down and the part that generates the fight response takes over.

Don’t wait until you are in the heat of a disagreement to try to work out how to take a “time out.”

Here are some guidelines to become acquainted with that can help you prepare ahead of time so that you will be ready to take an effective time out when needed.

  •  Agree Upon a Signal. First of all, agree upon a signal that will let you both know that the time out is needed.  This can be a verbal or a non-verbal signal.  A verbal signal could simply be to say, “Time Out!”  or “Break!” Some couples decide upon a word that is unique to them like “Bananas” or “Vortex.” Non-verbal signals could be making a “T” with your hands, making the peace sign, or putting your fists together and making a breaking motion.
  • Conversation Must Cease. Immediately stop talking! When a time-out is called, both partners must agree to return the signal or key phrase and stop all conversation. There will be no last words, explanations, or a final comment Don’t think to yourself, “We can take a time-out after I make my point,” because then a break will never happen.
  • Calm Down. Dr. John Gottman’s research shows that it takes most people at least 20 minutes to regulate their emotions and return to their normal self. Therefore, don’t attempt to re-engage in the conversation with your spouse until at least 20 minutes has passed.  What can you do during this time? Take a walk, listen to music, read inspirational thoughts or scripture, pray, etc.
  • Focus on Your Physical State.  Take deep cleansing breaths and be aware of your heart rate.  Concentrate on relaxing different parts of your body.
  • Change Your Thinking For a break to be effective, you need to make an intentional effort to replace these negative and destructive thoughts with relationship- building thoughts that will help you calm down. For example, instead of thinking, “We always get to this point.  There’s just no hope for us”, try thinking “I’m hurt and I love my partner.  I don’t like being disconnected.  I know that we can work this out and reconnect. 
  • Focus on your emotions. This is not a time to focus on your mate. Spend this time to reflect and look inward. Ask yourself, “Why is this such a trigger issue for me/us?”  (See the previous blog post on Hot Buttons for help with this if needed.) 
  • Is there something that you need from your spouse that you could ask for?

Don’t expect your mate to be a mind reader.

If you can identify an unmet emotional need that drives your behavior, specifically ask your mate to meet that need.  It could be that you and your mate aren’t communicating at the emotional needs level and the hurt feelings are a result. In a committed relationship, meeting each other’s needs is critical to the health of the relationship and something each mate should want to do. Your mate might be glad to know what they could do to fulfill your needs. 

  • Is there something that you would be willing to give up/do/change so that you and your spouse could reconnect? Think about what adjustments you would be willing to make so that you and your spouse could resolve the issue and close the emotional distance between you.  Try to be genuinely selfless and see what a difference it will make.  More often than not, your mate will follow your lead and become more flexible and willing to adjust for the sake of your relationship. 
  • Re-engage. Come back together when the time is up. After the agreed upon break, if you are apart, text one another.  The text could say, “I’m ready now for us to work together on resolving this, or “ I need some more time.  Is it okay if we take another 20 minutes?”  It is very important that your mate doesn’t begin to feel that you are abandoning them or avoiding the issue, so communicate!

When you do come back together from the break, don’t just jump right back into the conflict. Take a few minutes and connect with each other at a heart level. Say what you appreciate about your mate.  Hug for a moment and let your blood pressure lower.  Doing this will let your brain know that it doesn’t have to signal your body to protect you!

Tips

  • Practice taking a time out, even when you don’t really need to. The next time that you find yourself the least bit triggered, take a time out. Get the agreement of your partner, of course If you can do this with smaller issues, then you will be more effective with dealing with the more emotionally charged ones when they emerg.
  • Don’t use any substances that would alter your thoughts or feelings during your timeout.

Make a Time Out Agreement

Come up with your own agreement.  It could look something like this:

 Our Time Out signal is________. We agree to take a ___ minute break from each other and return when the time is up.
If I need more time, I will request it from my partner. If my partner requests additional time to calm down, I agree to let them take that time.
I will avoid completely any substances that might alter my thoughts or feelings during our time-out.

The proper use of a time-out is one of the crucial relationship tools that a couple can add to their tool box.  If, however, the issue at hand is too volatile or sensitive and a time out isn’t being effective, that is the time to seek marriage help through a coach or counselor or a marriage intensive experience.