The best thing to do in the middle of an argument that’s getting heated is to call a time out. However, not all time outs are created equal. Some timeouts do more harm than good. For example, imagine a husband walking away as he says in a frustrated tone, “I can’t deal with this right now! We will talk about this later.” Although he technically called a time out by walking away and saying he will talk about it later, it likely left his wife feeling dismissed, unheard, or more furious watching him walk away.
A time out like this would create hurt or angry feelings in the wife. She is left wondering why the husband walked away, why he didn’t stay to listen to her, when will he come back, and how and when will he talk to her about this. Out of anger, she might chase after him, which would not make the husband any more open to listening to her. On the other hand, she might patiently (or impatiently) wait as she expects her husband to talk to her later that night, only to be disappointed and hurt as she finds her husband asleep. As illustrated in this example, a time out lacking clear communication, structure, and boundaries can lead to more harm than good.
Here is how I recommend couples to negotiate and implement a time out:
1) Negotiate a strategy for a time out ahead of time so it’s ready to be executed during a heated argument.
2) When negotiating the time out, decide what phrase, gesture, or word you will use to indicate to your partner that you need a time out.
3) Decide on the duration of the time out. I recommend 20 minutes. You can also decide on setting a specific time. For example, the two of you can decide to continue the conversation at 8pm, once the kids are in bed.
4) Make a plan on what each of you will do during the time out. This is not the time for you to walk away and do nothing. On the contrary, what you do in this time is what will determine whether the pending conversation will be successful or unsuccessful in terms of reaching a resolution. I recommend couples to create a self-regulation plan on what strategies each partner will actively engage in to calm their nervous system and regulate their emotions. Examples include mindfulness, positive self-dialogue, self affirmations, and self soothing techniques.
5) Agree to come back exactly after the duration, or at the time discussed. Even if you are not feeling regulated enough, agree to come back together and clearly communicate if either of you needs a few more minutes. Agree on a time – and agree to respect each other’s need for more time, should either of you request it.
6) Repeat step 5.
8) Communicate more effectively this time and move towards problem-solving. For example, the solution may be in identifying unfulfilled needs and requesting each other’s support in fulfilling a need, re-evaluating division of labor, compromising on conflicting parenting styles, and so on.
9) Request another time out if the conversation starts to escalate again, following the same process of a negotiated time out.
This is a helpful tool for all couples. In particular, couples with a baby or small children can benefit from engaging in negotiated time outs because it allows them to take breaks and regulate themselves, something they might be struggling to do due to sleep deprivation, exhaustion, and overwhelm.
Try it out and leave a comment below to share how it went!