By Michaela Choy, AMFT
Conflict is an inevitable part of being in relationship. It can be productive, but it can also be hurtful. When conflict becomes reactive and explosive, we need to find ways of calming down in order to prevent further damage. During these times, our brains respond by initiating a fight, flight, or freeze response. When this gets activated, we are no longer in the conversation to connect and understand our partner, but we are attempting to survive and defend using any means possible. This is very dangerous territory for relationships. When this occurs, consider taking a time out (Fishbane, 2013).
To be effective, time outs must be used with intention. It’s recommended that couples discuss guidelines before using this tool. This helps partners develop a sense of safety during their time apart and know exactly what to expect. Here are some great guidelines to consider.
Call a time out with tact. Saying that you need time apart with a hard tone, exaggerated volume, or nasty non-verbal cues will only make things worse. Take a deep breath and speak as calmly as possible. Some suggested phrases are:
“Hey, I think I need some time to cool down before we talk about this more, let’s take a time out.”
“I want to talk about this more, but I need a break. Let’s take a time out.”
Agree upon the amount of time that you will spend apart. Research shows that when your emotions are escalated, it takes 20 minutes at minimum to cool off. Your time out should be no shorter than 20 minutes. 30 minutes is my recommendation to couples (Fishbane, 2013).
Use time apart intentionally. If you use this time to ruminate on your anger and allow your hard feelings to grow, entering back into a conversation with your partner will cause damage. Take a walk, practice deep breathing, or find alternative ways of soothing yourself. Only when you are calm should you reengage.
Decide who will initiate the conversation again. I recommend that the partner that calls the time out is the partner that initiates the conversation again.
Using this tool can help us reach a place where we can find connection during disagreements versus fighting with reactivity. When done well, you can increase your chances of resolving hard conversations without further hurting your partner.
Fishbane, M. D. (2013). Loving with the Brain in Mind: Neurobiology and Couple Therapy (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). WW Norton & Company.