Conflict Resolution: The Rules of Taking a Timeout

One of the most significant tools couples can learn to implement into their conflict process is the time-out. Though I’m sure this term makes you think of a toddler sitting in the corner of a kitchen on their mini-stool with a parent standing over them shaking their finger, a time-out in the context of a marriage is a powerful and honorable thing to do.

When we get angry, frustrated, or highly emotional in the midst of conflict, we physiologically change. Palms sweat, muscles tense up, our demeanor and tone changes, and behaviors may become more erratic. The fight or flight part of our brain is activated and we are no longer behaving in a relational way. We are functioning from our limbic system, or survival mode. In a marriage, this translates into “I’m feeling attacked, so my defenses are going to come up. I have to protect myself emotionally from any threat, including you.” This is simply a fact of life.

The best thing to do when you feel yourself getting to this point is to call a time-out. This is so important, so I’m going to phrase it againYou call a time-out for yourself, not for your partner. Back to the example earlier of the toddler who was put in time-out; this was most likely because the tyke did something unsafe or wrong, and the parent is teaching the child how to do the right thing.

You are not your partner’s parent. Telling them that they need a time-out will only escalate the problem and put them into defense mode. Part of calling a time-out for yourself is being accountable to yourself, your partner, and your relationship.

Taken from the Prepare/Enrich program, here are the rules for taking a time-out:

  1. Recognize your need for a time-out.
    Remember, this is about calling yourself out, not your partner. Know what’s happening with yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally when you need to take a break.
  2. Request the time-out.
    Don’t just walk away! Respond in an accountable and mature way that says to your partner that you need this right now in order to effectively communicate with them later. Some good examples of what you can say are:
    “I feel myself getting too angry right now to have this conversation. I need some time to cool down.”
    “I need to take a time-out.”
    “I’m so upset right now, I can’t even respond. I need some time to think this through.”
  3. Relax and calm down.
    This is the point for you to lower the blood pressure and re-stabilize emotionally, mentally, and physically. Physical activity at this point can be great (take a walk, take deep breaths, or go for a jog).
  4. Remember what’s important.
    What led to this escalation? What got stirred up in you? After you’ve calmed down, identify what happened and what was challenging to discuss. Meditate, pray, or reflect on what happened and what you’d like your partner to understand about your perspective.
  5. Resume the conversation.
    This is the step that makes a time-out so effective. The repair process of returning to your partner and addressing the conflict in a better state of mind shows maturity and a willingness to work through your hardships.

All couples fight. Not all couples fight effectively. Learning how to be accountable in the midst of conflict can increase respect and accountability in your relationship. The tools you learn along the way have the power to positively influence your family for years to come.

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