Do you need to take Time Outs?

You will probably benefit by learning and using the discipline of the Time Out if all of the following are true.

      • You address the same issues or topics repeatedly without resolution

Most significant relationships have the same or similar arguments arise over and over. They each have their own particular circumstances, but there is something about them that seems like the same thing repeated.

      • You each try to show the other how they are wrong or bad

One very common strategy is to try to win by making the other lose. When one person tries to make the other lose, the other responds in kind.  Soon they are each trying to make the other lose, and indeed, they both lose.

      • You are both unhappy with the outcome

Sometimes this sort of banter is just play.  We can have a good time playing at put-downs.  If one of you likes it but the other doesn’t then you may need to try something other than a time out.  Check out the tools under “Fighting without Fighting” to see if those fit for you.  But if you agree that this pattern isn’t working for either of you and you agree to try to change it, then keep reading.

      • You are each willing to repair your relationship

The Time Out can be a very powerful tool for healing and positively transforming your relationship.  But in the form presented here it only works if you are both willing to use it and that means you are each working to change yourselves.  Often one person is more invested in change than the other, but both have to work at it.  If you want transformation in your relationship but your partner isn’t invested in changing him or herself, check out “New Ways of Being” to find things you can do on your own to heal yourself in the relationship.


What does the Time Out look like?

Because this is a discipline that each couple creates for themselves to address the specific issues and circumstances of their lives, no two Time Outs are the same.  But they do all have to accomplish certain tasks.  The purpose is to interrupt the fight and create enough space to insert a more effective way of addressing the conflict.  There are a series of steps that each couple will have to take each time to create the Time Out.

Calling the Time Out

Taking a Time Out is stopping the flow of the relationship at the very time that things are starting to get tense.  This is very hard to do.  Just learning to take a Time Out is a huge part of making it work.  There are several steps here.

Recognizing it is time for a Time Out

One of you will have to become aware that it is time for a Time Out.  This may be because of the feelings that are arising in you.  It may be because of the look on your partner’s face or the tone of their voice.  You will have to practice noticing what the cues are the things are starting to turn bad.

Signaling the Time Out

It is very important that either of you can call the Time Out.  If only one has the power to call it, that power becomes a tool for dominance and control.  You can use a hand signal, a phrase, whatever.  Each may call it a different way.

Plan for the Return

The Time Out should last only as long as you need to get back onto firm footing.  That may be “in five minutes,” or “after the kids are in bed,” or “when we meet with our therapist.”  But it must not be open ended.  Usually one person wants the Time Out and the other wants to finish the conversation.  It will be very hard to take a break without deciding when the break is over.  Thus an essential part of calling the Time Out is indicating when we will come back and talk about this.

While in Time Out

Each person will have a specific plan for what to do while in Time Out.  He may go to the basement while she goes to the bedroom. There may be different plans for different circumstances.  One couple I worked with wasn’t clear how to take a Time Out when they had to attend to the kids.  They decided that the one who called the Time Out would decide either “I’ll watch the kids,” or “You get the kids,” depending on the emotions of the moment.  But the plan must be to have separation.  That means no talking while in Time Out (or at least no talking about the issue that generated the tension).

[One couple I counseled were over-the-road truck drivers.  Time Out meant not talking about the issue even though they remained seated next to each other and may have to consult about routes and tolls.]

Being in Time Out is time used to get clear about the issue and ready to return to the discussion in a safe and effective manner.  It is not a time to get a drink or smoke a joint.  Sometimes it may help to sleep or to take a walk, but the purpose is to prepare to return to the issue in a helpful manner.

In order to be able to return to the issue in a helpful manner it is necessary that each party be fully connected to themselves.  We can’t connect with someone else better than we connect to ourselves.  For this reason you should be familiar with the material in the section Connecting with Our Selves.

After the Time Out

When the appointed hour comes to return from Time Out you get together to return to the conversation.  This is not the same as picking up where you left off.  If you do, you can take another Time Out.  If every time you try to talk about this you have to take another Time Out, then there is work you each have to do to get clear about the issues.

Ideally you can calmly talk about what came up for each of you that created the fight.  The purpose of the first part of the conversation is for each to be able to state what is true for them.  Avoid describing what you think is going on with the other.  Imagine there is a spotlight suspended between the two of you.  When you are talking, the spotlight is on you.  Illuminate the other with what is true for you.  Do not use the spotlight to interrogate the other.  [This image is from the work of Susan Heitler.  I strongly recommend her book The Power of Two for couples having trouble with conflicts.]

Barriers to making it work

There are two things that tend to get in the way of the conversation following the Time Out.  One is that you may find the feelings to be overwhelming and so you can’t get yourself to do what you have agreed to.  In that case check out Managing Overwhelming Emotions.  The other is that you are not yet clear about what comes up for you when this issue is raised.   If this is the problem go to New Ways of Being and work through the first part before trying the Time Out again.

Doing “fire drills”

You remember in grade school when you would periodically practice what the class would do if there were a fire or a tornado (I grew up in the mid-west)?  We practiced because the adults knew that if there were really a fire we would be scared and it would be harder to behave in a calm way.  The same is true for a Time Out.  When we really need one we are going to feel scared and it is going to be hard to remember what it was we were supposed to do.

For that reason it is very important that we practice early and often.  When you first agree to do Time Outs be sure to practice at least once a day.  When you can easily do them you can space it out, but if you can’t do the Time Out when you don’t need it you won’t be able to do it when you do.

Once you have the basic behavior in place, use the guidelines in Building an Agreement to refine the structure of the conversation following a Time Out.

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