By Nathan Cobb, Ph.D.
There are times in couple conflict when we feel overwhelmed with emotion and find it hard to think clearly. Sometimes anger gets the better of us. Sometimes, we say things that we later wish we had not said.
During such times, we may lose sight of our own responsibility and focus on what is wrong with our partner. Real listening and heart-to-heart communication breaks down. The more we try to address the problem, the worse things get.
One oft-mentioned antidote to this situation is to take a break—a time-out—to create space to calm down, to get into a different state of mind to find solutions.
I’ve discussed this strategy with many couples, and almost always there is one spouse who nods their head in agreement with this approach while the other spouse shakes their head and says they’ve tried this before and it doesn’t work. Nothing ever gets solved that way, they say. Often it’s the man who nods in agreement and the woman who expresses skepticism, but sometimes it’s the other way around.
The problem here is usually not with the strategy of a time-out itself, but with the way the strategy is used. Typically, for example, the one who leaves during an argument does so in a huff, with some parting shots about being ‘done’ with talking, or worse, done with the relationship. The remaining partner feels abandoned and highly anxious that nothing is going to get solved, so she pursues.
If a break from the argument does occur, the leaving partner typically doesn’t want to talk about it again after the time-out, for fear of sparking another argument. During the break, there may be little effort, on either person’s side, to become more aware of underlying emotions and needs, to take ownership of personal fault, to think about the other person’s perspective, or to decide on ways to approach the issue differently.
Instead, both parties typically either distract themselves, or try to “get over” the feelings and move on without thinking much more about it, or they get stuck in a mental hamster cage, rehearsing the hurt over and over in their mind, feeling agitated, self-righteous, indignant, fearful, or powerless.
If such a couple were to resume the discussion, they would soon be right back where they were before the time-out, because nothing in their outlook or vision really changed during the break. Having the fight start all over again only reinforces in the mind of the one who called the time-out the futility of returning to talk.
When emotions run high, when the one we love uses harsh words and sharp tones or refuses to talk, it makes us feel threatened, deserted and when we feel threatened our brains are wired to deal with this threat in very limited ways.
The part of our brain that helps us to solve problems creatively, to think about things objectively, to utilize new skills we’ve learned, or to put ourselves in another person’s shoes, that part of our brain gets overridden (unless we’ve consciously trained ourselves to use that part of our brain under stressful situations).
More primitive parts of our brain, known collectively as the limbic system, take over. When feeling threatened, this part of our brain has three solutions: fight, flight or freeze. That is, the thoughts, behaviors, emotions and urges that are triggered by the limbic system when it senses danger are consistent with one or more of these “solutions”.
The bottom line is that when we find ourselves in this fight, flight or freeze state of mind, then no amount of talking will ever lead to creative problem-solving because we are not in the right state of mind anymore for solving problems creatively.
If we are in a state of mind that tells us to fight (attack, criticize, complain, scream, yell, vent, blame, issue ultimatums, demand, insist, shout, etc.) or flee (avoid, get away, withdraw) or freeze (shut down, ignore, stonewall, stop communicating, internalize feelings, etc.), then we are not in the state of mind needed for listening, understanding, connecting and reconciling.
Shifting out of that fight-flight-or-freeze state of mind has to take priority over spending any more time talking about the issue, in the same way that we are instructed to put on our own oxygen mask first before assisting anyone else in the event of an airplane disaster.
This is the purpose of a time-out: to give us time to put on our own oxygen mask. Let’s examine the oxygen mask analogy a little more carefully. An oxygen mask on a passenger jet deploys when there is a change in cabin pressure that puts the people on the plane at risk of asphyxiation.
A time-out should be deployed when there is a change in the internal state of one or both spouses that puts them both at risk of remaining in an escalating, pointless and destructive argument.
Putting on the oxygen mask is an interim step one must take before a person can effectively respond to an emergency. In a crisis, one does not put the oxygen mask on and then go back to reading the newspaper. There is more to do. The oxygen mask does not solve anything by itself; it just keeps us from losing consciousness so that we can take care of ourselves in the crisis.
A time-out is an interim measure also. It is temporary and it doesn’t solve anything by itself. It just keeps us from getting to a point of saying or doing something that we would later regret and helps us to get into a frame of mind to respond appropriately to a crisis.
Once we’ve put our oxygen mask on, then we have to think about what to do next. What are our instructions? What is happening around us? What should we be doing? We have to stay calm and assess the situation as accurately and objectively as we can and act on that assessment.
A time-out is also an opportunity for each person in the relationship to think about personal responsibility. What should I do next? What was really happening? How was I coming across to my partner? What was I doing or saying that made it difficult for my partner to accept my message? How was I part of the problem? What do I need to change?
Finally, when we board a plane and get ready for take-off, the flight attendant reviews the rules and safety procedures with the passengers. Not following the procedures puts people at risk.
Time-outs also should follow clearly defined procedures that both partners agree to follow because doing so is in the best interest of the relationship, and not doing so puts the relationship at risk.
With that said, may I offer some guidelines for making the most of your “oxygen mask” during a heated disagreement:
Come to a mutual understanding that time-outs are okay.
Do this early on, before you find yourselves in an escalating argument. For example, you could both agree on: 1) when it is appropriate to use a time-out (i.e. when one or both of you are feeling overwhelmed with negative emotions and need time to calm down), 2) the purpose of the time out, which is to change your state of mind, to create space and time to self-soothe and reflect on what to do next, and not to avoid or control the argument, and 3) how a time-out could be carried out, which leads us to the next point.
Communicate that you need a time out.
When you are feeling too overwhelmed to talk, suggest up front in a forthright way that you need a break to calm down and think. “I know we need to talk about this, but I’m too mad right now. I need time to think.” Keep it short, but try to give your partner something to hold on to during the break (i.e. reassurance that you are not giving up, that you intend to work it out, or that you still love and care for him or her).
Make the time-out short.
Try to come to some agreement on how long your time-outs should be. Generally, your body’s heart rate and breathing should return to normal after about a half-hour, but you may feel you need more time than this to think things through.
If so, try to agree on a time when you will come back to the table. An hour or so might be reasonable (assuming neither of you have other time commitments), but longer may be necessary. Generally, more than twenty-four hours is too long as after that length of time it begins to feel like avoidance.
Soothe yourself and reflect on a new course of action.
Once you leave, use the time away to soothe yourself. Focus on relaxing as you take some deep breaths. Let go of any angry, self-righteous thoughts you are thinking. Do something that helps you soothe yourself in a healthy way. Perhaps take a walk, draw a bath, listen to some music, or meditate. Do some stretching. Some people find that they think best and calm down more easily while doing physical work such as washing dishes or working outside.
Once you are more calm, use the time to yourself to reflect on why you were feeling angry or upset. What can you learn from your emotions? What might you be feeling underneath the anger? Sad? Hurt? Lonely? Afraid? Why are you feeling that way? Can you try to express those softer, more vulnerable feelings, and the relationship needs behind them, to your spouse when you go back?
Think about how you may have impacted your partner. Were you accusing or judgmental? Could you have unwittingly triggered your partner to be defensive because of your tone or the way you said things? How did your own actions help perpetuate the argument? Consider what you might do differently when you return.
Return and repair.
Remember that the crisis is not over. Once your heart rate has returned to normal and you have a better sense of what triggered you and what else you were feeling besides just being angry, its time to return and talk things through. Sometimes after this calming down period, partners realize that what they were fighting about wasn’t important enough to fight about. Neither of you may want to stir up the negative feelings again, so you may be tempted not to discuss it anymore. However, it is really important to repair the damage that was done and to apologize for the hurts caused by the things you said or did prior to the time-out.
In addition, it can be helpful to have a calm, objective discussion about why you both reacted the way you did so that you have some understanding of what each of you were feeling and how you can avoid such hostilities in the future. This is why it is so important to spend some time really thinking about what you needed and what you were feeling when you responded to your spouse initially with anger or withdrawal. You may also realize that what you were fighting about was not the real issue, and shift the focus of your discussion to the more central issue.
Leaving angrily without an explanation, without saying where you are going, why you are leaving, or when you will be back, will only give your partner cause to think you are avoiding the issue, and to resent your withdrawal.
If possible, try to avoid saying in an angry tone of voice things like, “I can’t talk to you,” and walk off in a huff. This is more fuel on the fire. You may eventually cool down, but because you made it sound like it was your partner that was the problem, instead of explaining that you needed to change your own state of mind, then your spouse is likely to feel abandoned and anxious, and to ruminate and fume about your “avoidance” and about your last words instead of using the time for his or her own self-soothing.
Sometimes a time-out doesn't really work because we feel so hurt and angry that we use the time away to nurse all the negative things we felt about our partner to begin with, especially if our partner left in a huff and we feel we have justification to stay angry.
By using the time more constructively, however, by reflecting on how we co-created the problem with our partner and what we might do differently when we return, we can make a choice to get unstuck from the anger we feel.
It is best not to let too much time pass before returning, apologizing, and acknowledging your partner’s feelings, to let the other person off the hook sooner rather than later. Even if you are unable to reconnect for a while due to time constraints, it can still be a good idea to return quickly to apologize for the earlier hostilities and plan a definite time to finish working out your differences later on.
When partners merely avoid each other, there is no resolution. Avoidance can go on for days or indefinitely, with no clear commitment to return, to clear the air or to resolve the issue. During the “ceasefire,” partners place little emphasis on taking personal responsibility. Chronic avoidance leads to resentment and bitterness and a long list of unresolved issues.
Following the person who requested a time-out.
This one is really important, as following your spouse when he or she attempts to use a time-out, will likely contribute to an escalation of the fighting and make both of you less inclined to think that a time-out will work at all. If you can, try to let your partner go and trust your partner’s word that he or she will calm down, think things through and come back.
Resolving problems when you are stressed, hungry or tired.
Another suggestion is to try not to resolve your differences when either of you are overtired, or under excessive stress. Contrary to popular belief, sometimes the best thing we can do is to go to bed angry (as long as we re-visit the issue in a timely manner, and not carry the grudge with us throughout the next day). The next morning often brings with it a different perspective and a softened heart.
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