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Time Outs Aren’t Just for Kids

In my private practice as a San Diego therapist, I often see the damaging effects of unbridled anger on relationships. And, men don’t have the corner on this market either – plenty of women do their fair share of harm through fiery tempers and uncensored words. So, what are some suggestions for couples who continue to weaken their relationship through angry exchanges? For me, “communication” is always a step towards healing, but communication can only be effective if it’s cradled within a safe and respectful environment. And, when people are having trouble controlling their language and behaviors while angry, this is not the time to try and communicate – instead, this is the perfect opportunity to implement a time-out.

Time-outs are for adults tooTime out? Yeah, they’re not just the things you give kids when they’re acting out. And, it’s not something you give your significant other, either! Ideally, the person who is too heated up and angry will give it to him or herself. This is not an avoidance of communication, but instead a cooling off period where both parties can calm, ground and center themselves, thinking of ways to communicate their upset and concern in a more respectful and controlled manner. It helps the angered person feel more control over his or her temper and helps the other partner feel safer in the midst of a growing disagreement. Ultimately, time-outs can lead to greater trust, respect and communication for a couple. So what do you do in a time-out?

A time-out has three central components which ideally will be initiated by the partner who is angered and concerned about his or her temper, words or behavior:

  1. Tell your partner you need to take a time out.
  2. Tell your partner approximately when you’ll return.
  3. Assure your partner you will continue the discussion when you return or shortly thereafter.

Have the discussion together about what a time-out is and how you will use it before an argument ensues so there will be an expectation and understanding when it’s needed. Trying to negotiate the rules of a time-out while in an argument will most likely be unsuccessful.

If you feel a disagreement is digressing into hurtful and unproductive dialogue and you’re having trouble shutting it off, this is the time to initiate a time-out. I recommend the person having trouble with anger become more acquainted with the red flags and warning signs of their anger so they can be more in control and use a time-out effectively before damage is done to the relationship. It’s true that tempers can rise quickly, but there are always indicators a person can be aware of such as physical tension, breathing, and heart rate. Physical and emotional changes can alert a person to remove him or herself from a situation before actions follow such as hurtful words or even physical aggression. Being familiar with your warning signs can help you be more accountable and in control of your behavior. With this said, if you feel these warning signs present, simply tell your partner you need to take a time-out. At this point, the goal is to remove yourself from the environment. It may be another room in the house where you can be alone, a walk around a few blocks, a drive to somewhere you want to be (make sure your anger won’t lead to angry driving!) or a jog. Anything you feel will help you cool off and stop relating to your partner from a place of anger. Crucial to this first step is that the other partner must respect the time-out! Disaster can occur if one partner calls for a time-out and the other tries to stop him or her or won’t give space.

Once a person lets their partner know they need a time-out, it’s equally important to tell them approximately when you will return and that the conversation will be continued. This is important because the person not taking the time-out will be more tempted to try and stop their partner and interfere with the time-out if they feel they are being “left” or “blown off”. A time-out is not a tool for avoidance, but needed space for re-grouping. People sometimes feel they won’t have the opportunity to speak their part if the argument stops and will do everything they can to get their words in and point across… so assuring them you will return and finish the discussion helps them cope with their anxieties and insecurities about having to wait.

When all three components are communicated by the person taking the time-out, the person who is angry can leave the environment for space and time. Be sure and implement the other two principles – returning and having the discussion again. If this cycle can be completed, both partners begin to build trust in the time-out process and it becomes easier and easier to utilize. If the partner taking the time-out doesn’t follow through with all three parts of the time-out, greater distrust and insecurity will most likely arise from the other partner leading to greater resistance to a time-out in the future. A time-out is a process requiring both partners to participate and cooperate in, and although a bit awkward and challenging at first, will lead to a better relationship and the avoidance of destructive dialogue and behaviors.