Your heart rate is up. Your face is flush. You’re talking a little faster than normal. What started as a simple conversation is exploding into a high-emotions fight.
We’ve all been there. If we’ve loved, we’ve fought.
While we can’t avoid fights with our significant other completely, at least not until we’ve been genetically modified to stop being human, what we can do is take steps to avoid the fight getting out of hand. What we do after the argument has started makes all the difference between a quick burst of emotions and a drag out, scorched-earth disagreement that takes up all evening. This is the difference between gaining closeness with our partner and losing ground when we disagree.
One well-known technique for keeping emotions in check and properly handling a fight is the timeout. We all know the timeout, because our parents or teachers taught us this technique when we lost our tempers as children. Most of us use the timeout improperly, however, greatly lessening its effect.
There’s a reason that most of us know the timeout: it works. Our emotions are like water in a pot. The water can be still or it can get agitated and boil. When the water boils too much, it overflows and creates a mess. If we can remove the pot from the heat for even a few seconds, however, the water will not spill over the edge of the pot.
This is the purpose of the timeout, and it works for couples as much as it does for kids who have gotten out of control. The timeout is taking the pot off the stove. It doesn’t solve the underlying issue, which is the heat source, but it keeps us from boiling over and causing a mess that we must clean up. Containing the boil of our emotions greatly simplifies the process of coming together with our partner after a disagreement. It saves huge amounts of time, connection and emotional energy.
The problem is that we use the timeout wrong.
When we call a timeout, tensions are high. We are emotional. Our partner is emotional. There’s a problem, and one or both of us is strongly wanting a resolution to the issue at hand. A timeout in this moment can stop the boil, but it also stops the process of resolving the issue. It stops the cooking, or so we feel in the heat of the moment.
This is where the timeout fails for so many of us. We call the timeout, but it isn’t observed. We might understand the need for the timeout, but our partner wants no part of this pause in the conversation. So the conversation doesn’t actually stop; the fight continues. Or if it stops, too often our partner is mad that we’ve run away from the important issue at hand.
A further problem with the timeout is that we leave the discussion and lose our spot if we’re gone too long. We either don’t return to the discussion at all, or we come back to it later and lose our hard-won progress. We start all over again. Since even seemingly meaningless fights come from an underlying issue, abandoning the discussion entirely is not a wise long-term solution.
The mistake is not setting a time when we will resume the discussion. A timeout with no time limit is frustrating for our partner. It is unilateral. It is ending the discussion before they are ready, which sends the signal that we are not partnering with them. A limitless timeout also can imply that we don’t care about the conversation or our partner’s feelings, and that we’re unreliable and won’t be there for the relationship when needed. This is strong stuff, so of course our partner might not like or respect our timeout!
A time limit changes the whole character of the timeout, though.
When we ask for a five minute break so we can cool down and reflect, we’re giving the timeout vastly different implications. We’re not fleeing the conversation, we’re collecting ourselves so it can continue. We’re not ignoring the needs of our partner, we’re asking for a few moments so we can hear them by processing what they’ve just said. We’re not ruining progress, we’re creating it by giving us time to think and resume constructive discourse. Most importantly, we’re not sending our partner the signal that we’ve broken the partnership—we’re working with our partner as a unit, noticing that one or both of us is boiling over and there’s the need for a momentary pause.
Putting a time limit on the pause is huge, and it makes an incredible difference. It truly is the key to a successful break in the conversation.
Now not all timeouts must be a short five minutes. Sometimes there is the need for a longer break. Maybe we need more time to process what’s been said, or we’re emotionally worn out, or we’re hungry and need to use the bathroom, or we are out of time. There are many reasons why a longer timeout might be necessary.
The trick is setting a definable time limit even with these longer pauses. You might ask your partner for a few hours off, or suggest a break right now but say that you really want to come back to the conversation tonight or sometime tomorrow. The key is establishing at the onset when you will resume. When you make the request, always include the restart time so your partner understands it is not a backhanded end to the conversation. Your partner needs to know that the conversation will continue—and when.
Psychotherapist Jeremi McManus and I cover the topic of timeouts and other common relationship issues in my video, The Three Challenges: Money, Sex and Kids. Please check it out!
You can get the video for free by visiting this link.
If you understand the concept of the timeout but are having trouble putting it into practice, I also encourage you to give me a call.
Arguments and communication breakdowns can be intense, and even the best of us can use some help sometimes. My life mission is to help you and your relationship with these situations. So reach out if you need a helping hand. Remember, no professional athlete at the top of their game goes without a coach (or two).
Peter is founder of Kowalke Coaching. He also is founding director of the Philia Mission, a small charitable organization. Contact Peter.