Time Outs: Not Just For Kids


How do most arguments with your partner play out for you?  Do you tend to listen and share cooperatively?  Do you take your time when things get heated?  Do you break bread, shake hands at the end and go on happily with your day? 

If this is you then YAY!  But for some couples and some arguments this isn’t always the case. 

What I tend to see is that some conflict runs deeper and may need to be handled with more sensitivity and care than others.  Some partners have differing responses to conflict.  Maybe one partner shuts down and the other continues trying to get to the bottom of the problem.  While wanting to take care of issues as they appear is ideal, it is not always necessary or helpful. 

In many couples, there tends to be one partner, the Pursuer, who prefers to deal with problems promptly.  He or she will want to keep talking about the conflict until it is fully resolved.  However, the other person, the Distancer, might feel overwhelmed, become increasingly angry, or stops listening altogether.  This person just wants it to stop.  This is when it is helpful to take a time out. 

If we wait too long to take a time out we run the risk of saying something hurtful to our partner which only adds more work for us (you as a couple and me as a therapist) in the future.  When we are met with too much conflict, we lose the ability to think clearly and rationally.  By continuing to argue, we are unable to be fully heard and understood.  We also lessen the chance of coming to a healthy compromise. 

In some cases, the Pursuer is motivated to be persistent in seeking a solution in order to maintain balance in the relationship.  Sitting with negative feelings doesn’t feel good and it is human nature to find ways to relieve ourselves of the discomfort.  However, being too pushy to find all the right answers at one given moment might be too much pressure for the Distancer partner.  That’s not to say the issue must be avoided or forgotten. 

So, what do you do?  Take a time out.  Just like kids, adults need them too!  When you begin to find yourself bringing up old problems from the past or thinking hurtful comments in your head that you’re ready to unleash on your partner – Take a Time Out!!!  If you’re unable to think clearly and find yourself tuning out – Take a Time Out!!! 

Nevertheless, it is important that you communicate with each other how much of a break is appropriate.  This can mean 20 minutes (at least!), 2 hours, or the next day.  Whatever timeline you decide just make sure it’s mutually understood. And in the meantime, try to go about your normal routine or do something relaxing.  Continue to treat each other with kindness and respect.  Just because you have a disagreement does not mean it’s okay to be hurtful to one another.

By waiting, we allow ourselves to cool down, reflect on the problem, and sometimes we may even have a change of heart.  Not all problems need to be addressed quickly.  And that’s okay.