All couples have disagreements and fights at one time or another. Conflicts happen in all relationships, and that’s okay.
It’s important to express your thoughts, feelings, and needs even if you’re unhappy. So, having conflict in your relationship is never the issue. What’s more important is how you manage the conflict and whether you repair it quickly.
But sometimes in a disagreement, you may find yourself so frustrated, overwhelmed, or angry that you feel like you’re going to explode. If you feel like demons are about to come out of your mouth, you’re going to say something hurtful to your partner, or you’re feeling so many emotions that you can’t think straight, this is the point when you need to step back and call a time-out.
What is a time-out?
A time-out isn’t just a cool-down period for an angry five-year-old, it’s a constructive technique for conflict resolution.
A time-out is a simple and effective way to pause an emotional conversation before someone has an uncontrolled outburst or shuts down.
This is important because these outbursts can be hurtful and are not conducive to resolving the conflict. A time-out is a break in the conversation so that the partner who is losing control of their emotions can step away and calm down.
What happens when you fight?
Let’s talk about what happens in the brain that causes you to ‘flip your lid’ or lose control of your emotions.
In an emotionally charged situation, such as a disagreement or argument, you can experience a phenomenon called Diffuse Physiological Arousal (DPA).
DPA, also commonly known as ‘flooding’ exhibits all the same symptoms as a fight, flight, or freeze response.
One of the first signs that you’re becoming flooded is your heart-rate rises above 95 beats per minute (85 if you’re athletic). So, arguing with someone can trigger your “emotional brain” to hijack a situation from your “thinking brain” and react to the disagreement with a fight or flight response.
This feels overwhelming. You stop thinking, you are flooded with too much information, and you act without conscious decision. Physically, your heart rate will pick up, your breathing will become fast and shallow, and your palms may become sweaty. You will also feel like you are losing control.
Dr. Daniel Siegel has a great explanation for the process of what happens to the brain when you ‘flip your lid’. Watch his explanation in the video below.
When you start experiencing the physical symptoms of flooding or notice that you are having a hard time thinking clearly, that’s your body’s alarm system letting you know that you need to step back and take a time-out.
It’s important not to continue a disagreement if you are flooded with emotions because you lose the ability to think rationally. You become more prone to outbursts based on irrational emotions and your contribution to the disagreement will no longer be conducive to resolving the problem or constructively expressing your point of view.
It’s best to take a time-out so you can calm down and then revisit the disagreement when you can once again be rational and focus on resolving the conflict.
How to take a time-out
Therapist Terry Real outlines a set of rules to help you execute a time-out in a way that will give you or your partner the space you need to calm down while ensuring the conflict is still resolved in a way that addresses everyone’s needs.
Initiate the time-out
A time-out is initiated with a combination of verbal cues and gestures:
- “I need to take a break from this conversation.”
- Make a T sign with your hands
- Putting your hand(s) up, palm out, in front of your chest in a non-threatening manner
It’s important that once the time-out is initiated, it’s acted upon and respected by both people immediately. This means you both stop the discussion immediately. No last words, no more comments – the fight has stopped for now.
Establishing a timeline for checking in
Agree on a time limit when both people agree to check back in with each other.
A time-out should be no less than 20 minutes and no more than 24 hours. A best practice is to start small, and then if you need more time, communicate that at the end of the agreed-upon time limit. Gradual increases for a time-out interval include:
- 20-30 minutes
- 1-2 hours
- Half a day
- A whole day
If no time is discussed, have a mutual understanding that the default time apart is 20 minutes.
Separate and focus on self-soothing
Once the time-out has been called, you then spend time away from each other.
Pick an activity that you find soothing and do that for the duration of the time-out in a space where you cannot see or hear the other person. It’s critical that you both focus on self-soothing during this time.
Don’t go over the fight in your mind or rehearse what you want to say or wish you had said. Now is the time to calm yourself.
Some examples of self-soothing activities include:
- listening to soothing music
- walking the dog
- reading a book
- going for a run/bicycle ride or any exercise
- watching a favourite show
- meditating or breathing exercises
- doing chores
- stretching or yoga
It’s helpful to have a list of self-soothing activities that work for you handy, such as creating a list on your smartphone. Start with 10 activities that you can pick from whenever you feel flooded but feel free to keep adding to your list.
When the agreed-upon time for the time-out is up, check in with each other. This does not need to be face-to-face, it could be on the phone.
The check-in does not mean the time-out is over – it means it’s time to check with each other and see if everyone is calm and collected or if more time is needed to cool off. If you’re still flooded with emotions and feel out of control, extend the time-out. If you started with 20 minutes, move up to the next time interval and have another check-in in an hour.
Resolve the conflict
A time-out is not the conclusion of an argument. Once you have calmed down, you do need to revisit the disagreement and resolve the conflict in an effective manner.
However, the subject that triggered the initial argument should not be discussed for at least 24 hours after reconnecting. Give yourselves some time to focus on your relationship, above and beyond the disagreement.
Arguing with your partner is normal and healthy. It’s an important step in communicating conflicting points of view. However, getting so worked up that you can’t control yourself in an emotionally charged situation is not healthy, and sometimes it’s not safe if the fight escalates.
If you feel like you’re about to lose control or you feel flooded with emotions, call a time-out. This is a safe and respectful way to give yourself time to calm down and prevents disagreements from becoming harmful. It allows you to revisit the subject when you can both be rational and calm and resolve the conflict peacefully.
Do you need relationship help?
If you need help with your relationship, contact Clinton Power + Associates on (02) 8968 9323 to discuss your situation and find out how we can help.
Since 2003, Clinton Power has helped thousands of couples and individuals as a counsellor and psychotherapist in private practice in Sydney and online in Australia. Clinton regularly comments in the media on issues of relationships and has appeared on Channel 7, The Sydney Morning Herald, and ABC Radio. Clinton’s eBook, 31 Days to Build a Better Relationship is available through his website or Amazon. Click here to take Clinton’s relationship checkup quiz to find out how well you know your partner.