In this series of articles, I will be introducing some nuggets of great and practical wisdom for couples I have collected from many masters in the field of couples counseling.  While you will see me write a lot about the importance of emotional connection to sustain healthy relationships, it is critical to know when and how to call a Time Out when things get heated.

The research of John Gottman, Ph.D. has determined that the four most harmful behaviors observed in relationships that deteriorate are 1) criticism 2) defensiveness 3) contempt and 4) harsh start-up.  Knowing how to spot these four danger behaviors and when and how to use a Time Out can make or break the health of a relationship.

Conflict is normal, natural and can be a healthy opportunity for people to deepen their understanding of and connection with one another. Conflict itself is not the downfall of relationship.  It is how the conflict is handled that makes all the difference.

When conflict leads to put-downs (verbally, e.g. “You don’t know what you are talking about!” or non-verbally, e.g. dismissive rolling of the eyes, or hand gesture), name calling (e.g. “Idiot!”) or any level of violence (e.g. throwing objects, screaming, physical harm of any kind) it is time to take a Time Out.

The research has shown when people’s heart rates and blood pressure rise along with intense emotion they become “flooded” and it is impossible to have any kind of positive, repairative interaction until a state of calm has been reached.  Taking a Time Out at this point is crucial.

Here are some tips inspired by Terry Real’s Relational Life Therapy Model along with Gottman’s methods blended with my own techniques used with hundreds of couples in my private practice as a therapist very successfully:

1. Use the Time Out as a “rip cord” to swiftly bring a HALT to destructive behavior – verbal or physical.

2. Time Out means all consideration and discussion about what each person wants from the other STOPS IMMEDIATELY until both people can return to calm and rational mind and body.

3. Time Out is temporary with a promise both parties will return to rational discussion later. I recommend people use a Post it Note system. One party calls “Post It!”, writes down the essence of the issue of conflict and sticks the note up on the wall or a mirror as a reminder to return to that issue later after a state of calm has been reached. Do NOT use or abuse the Time Out as an avoidant mechanism. Important issues must be addressed and there are healthy ways to discuss when both people are calm.

4. Don’t use Time Out as a weapon.  Terry Real refers to this as “provacative distancing.” Be sure you make it clear the Time Out is being called to protect the health of your relationship and to provide space and time to find calm and not as a way of consciously hurting or abandoning your partner.

5. Respect the Time Out as a unilateral, last-ditch effort to protect the relationship from damage that will follow if the heated exchange continues. Time Out is a way of taking responsibility for your own flooded feelings and risk of out-of-control reactions. If your partner calls the Time Out, drop your end of the rope immediately and respect this. Do NOT try to stop your partner from leaving the room/house/interaction.

6. Use the TIME in the Time Out to take responsibility for Self-Soothing and returning your body and mind to a place of calm.  What helps you to relax? Going for a run? Walking through the garden or the park? Lying in a dark room and breathing deeply? Taking a bath or shower? Reading a novel? Listening to your IPod?

7. Agree upon a “check in” system. Allow an hour to pass and then call/text or gently touch base in person with a simple mention of the words “checking in.”  The other party can respond “need more time” if still flooded with emotion or “better now,” indicating a state of calm has returned.

8. Observe a full 24 to 48 hours of BREAK from the issue that caused the conflict. Keep all interaction after the Time Out light and focused on fun, nice, non-serious topics

9. Know what the persistent issues are that trigger high conflict in your relationship and seek professional guidance together.  A professional therapist who is specifically trained in couples therapy techniques can provide you with some invaluable tools for learning HOW to discuss these persistent issues in a way that can actually bring you closer rather than damage your relationship.

10. Implement the mindfulness practice into your relationship by noticing the subtle cues your partner gives you as well as the cues you receive from your own mind and body and do so without rushing to judgment.  Just notice and breathe into these observations without reacting.  Take time and space BEFORE conflict rises to sort through your own feelings and questions and prepare for how to present these to your partner without attack or defensiveness.

Mindfully yours,

Lynn Louise Wonders