When our kids were small, we frequently took advantage of a time-honored means of averting potentially explosive interactions. It’s called a time-out. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with this mechanism that has come to be a tried and true instrument in most parents’ tool bag, a time-out is an interruption in an interaction that is threatening to disintegrate into a destructive or explosive outcome. Time-outs provide relief from a downward spiral of an increasingly agitated or hostile interaction by providing a cooling off period in which both parties can gain their composure and eventually re-engage when calmer heads can prevail.
Over years of working with couples, it has become evident to us that children are not the only ones who occasionally are in need of time-outs. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that most couples have multiple incidents over the course of their relationship in which the taking of a time out can prove to be appropriate and beneficial.
There are certain topics that can trigger emotional reactions, some very intense, that are likely to warrant time-outs. When having conversations that are beginning deteriorate into arguments of a destructive nature, such as those that focus on money, sex, child-rearing, parents and in-laws, eating habits, weight control, and driving habits, it’s wise to be honest, but to tread lightly, particularly if one’s partner is sensitive to criticism in certain areas.
This admonition is by no means meant to discourage communication in sensitive areas quite the contrary. Repeated avoidance of difficult conversations will be likely to provoke consequences that are much more damaging. It is harder to repair than conversations that result in hurt feelings, anger, or any of the other consequences we wish to avoid by not talking about important issues.
Even under the best of conditions, with the best of intentions, sometimes a partner can unknowingly ignite a land mine with explosive results. When our best efforts to repair the damage fail to be successful and at times even seem to make things worse, a time out may be exactly what is needed in order to re-engage and resume the conversation at the end of a cooling off period.
It’s important to note that despite the saying that “time heals all wounds,” it takes more than the passage of time to resume communications in a way that enhances the likelihood of bringing about a successful outcome to the dialogue.
The most important ingredient in addition to time is “intention.” There must be an intention on the part of each partner to use the time in order to settle themselves down, de-fuse their emotions, in a way that enables them to come back together bringing more openness to hear the other person without reacting with judgment, blame, or defensiveness. This level of vulnerability is almost impossible to achieve when we’re in the grip of intense emotions and feeling threatened by our partner. For this reason, it’s necessary for both partners to do whatever they need to do in order to adjust their attitude in a way that will increase the chances of having a productive interaction after the reunion.
There is no “correct” amount of time for a time-out break. Some situations require no more than a few seconds or minutes to take a few breaths. And it’s not uncommon for one person to require more time than their partner to calm their overheated emotions. Sometimes it can take an hour or more, depending upon the circumstances and the nature of the breakdown.
It’s a good idea to limit your timeouts to a maximum of 24 hours, no matter what the issue is. Keep in mind that the object of a timeout is not to come back together filled with love and light, feeling completely resolved about the issue, but simply to prevent the situation from further deteriorating and being more capable of continuing the dialogue with greater openness, respect, and committed listening.
The presence of differences in relationships is inevitable. Conflict, however, is optional. Differences become conflict when one or both partners try to influence or coerce the other into agreeing with their view or accommodate their expectations. Even couples with great relationships occasionally experience breakdowns, but the difference is that they are usually able to interrupt the downward spiral into destructive arguing in the early stages or the disagreement, thus preventing disaster.
The way we initiate a time-out and take our leave is of utmost importance. If we stalk off stamping our feet, scowling or slamming the door, we’re not very likely to bring about a successful reconciliation. It’s also helpful to have an understanding that either partner at any time has the authority to initiate a break when they feel the need for it, no questions asked. Attempts on the part of the other person to continue the dialogue when their partner has expressed a need for a cooling off period will only exacerbate an already painful situation.
While the solution to relationship conflicts is often to have more communication, sometimes the opposite is true, and what is needed is a pause or interruption in communication, particularly during those times when one’s best efforts just seem to be making things worse. Trying harder doesn’t always help.
Sometimes letting go of our efforts and regrouping can be the best thing that we can do to promote greater mutual understanding and receptivity. Knowing when to let go and when to press on is an essential characteristic for any successful relationship. It’s an acquired skill that is cultivated over time and through experience. Like anything worthwhile, it doesn’t occur overnight but given sufficient motivation and intentionality, it will enhance the quality of any relationship.
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