Making timeouts work for your relationship

By Clay Culp, Relationship Rx facilitator

Watch Clay discuss this topic on WTNX’s Fox 43 in the morning here.

The ones we love most are also the ones who can hurt us most. By being vulnerable, our partners entrust us with the responsibility to hold that vulnerability gently. While it can be easy to take a “gloves off” approach in a committed relationship, keeping the “gloves on” may be one of the healthiest things you can do for your relationship.

Insulting, mean-spirited comments often take more of a toll than we realize, especially when it comes from our partner. You can apologize and try to make it right after the fact, but your partner cannot un-hear the hurtful things you’ve said. Although repair is possible, overly harsh and intentionally hurtful remarks often lead to a decrease in emotional safety, and ultimately a lack of intimacy.

Prevention — stopping ourselves from saying these hurtful things to begin with — is often the best approach. Timeouts are an effective way to stop these behaviors in their tracks. Taking a timeout sometimes sounds like almost too simple of advice, but when done well, timeouts one of the most useful relationship tools. Here are four tips (adapted from PREP’s Within Our Reach curriculum) on making timeouts work for you.

1) Use “I” or “We” instead of “you” when asking for timeout: When you recognize the need for a timeout, be mindful of how you call for it. Telling your partner you need to take a timeout will likely come off as a parental and condescending. You will be much less likely to trigger defensiveness by saying “I” or “we” need to take a timeout. This also has the effect of helping you to join together around fixing the communication problem, rather than simply tearing each other down. Even if it really does seem to you that it’s your partner, more so than you, who needs to take a timeout, you’ll have better results this way. Besides, if you are getting to the point where your partner is upsetting you enough that you wish they would take a timeout, it’s likely that you could use one as well.

2) Plan a specific time to handle the issue: People sometimes wonder if taking a timeout is just another way of withdrawing or running away from problems, and it can certainly feel that way without some parameters. Taking a healthy timeout doesn’t mean storming away, never to talk about the issue again. Instead, try setting a specific time to deal with the issue in the future. We recommend at least 30 minutes (it takes at least that long to calm down), but not more than 24-hours if possible. This helps reduce the fear that the topic will be swept under the rug while at the same time reducing unnecessary tension due to uncertainty about when the topic will be brought back up.

3) Take steps to calm yourself down: Without an effective strategy to calm down, a timeout can become a time to stew and build up even more anger. This is not the time to focus on what you don’t like about your partner. While you’re not angry, take some time to decide on some healthy personal stress relieving strategies. You don’t need to decide for your partner how they will calm down or what they should be doing to make you more calm. Instead focus on what you can do in that moment to soothe your own feelings of anger.

4) Come back and communicate safely: The fact that you and your partner needed a timeout likely reflects that you’ve stumbled into some sensitive, possibly painful territory. Without a safe way to communicate around the issue, tempers are likely to flare up again. Safe communication could mean reminding yourself of ground-rules about things like yelling, name-calling, or angry touching. It might also mean using a structured communication strategy to share the floor, like the Speaker-Listener technique.

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