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The Importance of Time-Outs in Relationships

In my work with couples, I found that time-outs are the single most important tool for navigating relationship conflicts. Disputes and disagreements are inevitable in any relationship, and how couples navigate them can make the difference between a healthy, thriving relationship and one that is toxic and hurtful. Time-outs, like a safety net, prohibit verbal or physical abuse, allow partners to chill out, and give space for more constructive communication.




 

What is a time-out?

 

Time-outs, as described by Terry Real (2002) are purposeful breaks during a conflict or argument to prevent it from escalating. Both partners can step aside, cool down, and regain composure before re-engaging in the conversation. Breaks stop interactions if they become emotionally charged or unproductive, empowering partners to steer the conversation towards more rational and respectful dialogue.

 

Whenever one partner feels the argument is getting out of hand, somebody can call a time-out by using the words "time-out" or with the "T" hand signal or any other signal agreed upon. This signal means that both should automatically stop talking. It's a way to say:


"Dear partner, for some reason, right or wrong, I will lose it. If I stay here and continue this with you, I will probably do or say something stupid that I wish I hadn't. So, I'm taking a time-out to cool down. I will come back responsibly."

 

What is an appropriate length of time for a time-out?

 

A good time to start off with for a time-out is 20 minutes. This can easily be adjusted, and unless a time-out is recommended to be "open-ended" by your partner, the "check-in" should be made after 20 minutes. The "checking in" does not mean picking up the disagreement again but rather an update on whether a more extended time-out is needed. Each succeeding time-out should be longer, such as:

 

- Half an hour

- One to two hours

- A half day

- An entire day

- Twenty-four hours

 

After returning, wait 24 hours before discussing the issue that caused you to argue. By then, everybody should have had time to cool down, and the problem can be addressed in more explicit terms.





 

Ten Time-out Rules That Work

 

1. Use time-outs as circuit breakers

   A time-out is like pulling the emergency brake on a runaway train. Its only purpose is to halt an interaction that turns psychologically abusive or unproductive.

 

2. Take a Time-Out from the "I"

   During a time-out, return attention to yourself: "I don't like how I am feeling or what I am doing or about to do." This makes it clear that the purpose of the time-out is to manage your emotions, not to blame.

 

3. Be relational

   Responsible time-out is not provocative distance-taking. Explain why you are taking the break and promise to return: "This is why I am seeking distance, and this is when I intend on coming back." Make sure not to just leave without saying anything, as this could provoke unnecessary anxiety in your partner.


 

4. Use the Word or Action as a Shortcut

   "Time-out" or "T" is a shortcut for this complete sentence: "Honey, whatever it is, I feel I may be justified in; I don't like what I'm doing, and I don't trust what I am about to do. So I am taking time to regain my composure and will return to you when I do."

 

5. Don't let yourself get stopped:

Time-outs are non-negotiable and unilateral, meaning you must follow through without seeking permission. If a time-out is necessary, leave the room immediately, and if needed, leave the house and go for a coffee down the road. Terry Real advises, "If your partner physically blocks you from leaving, call the police and have them come to assist you. I have rarely met a couple where the police had to be called more than once".


6. Use Check-Ins at Prescribed Intervals

Check-in with your partner every hour, three hours, half a day, a whole day, or overnight. This lets your partner know that a time-out is more about cooling off than punishing them. If things are heated, phoning or texting might be better for these check-ins than checking in person.

 


7. Keep Your Goal in Mind

First and foremost, a time-out is designed to cease emotionally abusive or immature behaviour. Stopping such behaviour in your relationship is a goal that supersedes all other goals. You may need to work on better communication, more sharing, or negotiation, but that will only happen once you succeed in wrestling the beast of nasty interaction on the ground. 



 


8. Return in Good Faith

   The time-out finishes when both are ready to make a positive interaction. Don't come back with a grudge or a chip on your shoulder. Come back in when you are genuinely prepared to make peace.

 

9. Take a Twenty-Four-Hour Time-out on Trigger Topics

   After a time-out, don't try to process the triggering issue immediately. Let it be. At least 24 hours is necessary for an adequate cooling-off period. When you return, be mindful of having a good interaction—give each other a hug or make your partner a cup of tea.

 

10. Know When to Get Help 

    If some topics always end up turning into conversations that trigger both of you to take a time-out—on kids, your sex life, or your money worries—look at getting some outside help from a therapist, couples' counsellor, or advisor on how to have those talks so they become more productive.

 

The Power of Time-Outs to Strengthen Relationships

Times-outs are a good tool to have up your sleeve when it comes to conflict. They ensure that partners get space to cool down, and more often than not, time-outs will prevent conflict from becoming an abusive or destructive interaction. With these guidelines in place, couples can begin forming a safe, respectful environment whereby both parties feel heard and valued. Therefore, it is a reminder that time-outs are not taken to escape these issues. Instead, they allow us to cool down so that we can address the issue in an adult and constructive way. This way, couples will find themselves in a better position to solve disputes amicably and re-light their relationship.

 

 



 

Terry Real's work is well-regarded in the field of relationship therapy, particularly for his practical advice on managing conflicts and improving communication between partners. His book "How Can I Get Through to You?" is a valuable resource for understanding the dynamics of relationships and the importance of strategies like time-outs:

 

Real, T. (2002). How Can I Get Through to You? Reconnecting Men and Women. New York: Scribner.

 

All Photos by cottonbro studio https://omycotton.com/works/

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