Have you ever been in a difficult conversation with your partner that ended up with yelling and cursing? Your heart is pounding, your breathing has increased, and your words and thoughts are no longer coherent. You probably left the conversation feeling resentful, drained, and the issue has not been resolved.
This is when our emotions become so overwhelming it feels like a flood and after the waters subside you realize that you may have said something that you regret or you feel some resentment toward your partner for not validating your needs.
We can minimize the intensity and the frequency in which these situations occur by using a time-out. Not the time-out we use with our children, but a meaningful time-out so we can engage in meaningful conversation that gets our needs met.
Time-outs are an easy concept on the surface, but the real beauty of the time-out is understanding how and when to execute them and why they are important.
Typically, when we become emotionally flooded during a difficult conversation our bodies react. We have a physiological response! Recognizing our physiological responses to our emotions during these conversations is key in helping us decide if we need to take a time-out. Many people say they go from 0-60 in a blink of an eye, but if they learn to listen to their bodies, they would find that this not a completely true statement.
When we get angry our hands may ball into a fist or our teeth may clench. When we get anxious or fearful our heart rate may increase, our breathing may become shallower, and our stomachs may start feel like the inside of a dance club.
This is all thanks to our limbic system. The limbic system responds when there is a perceived danger and we go into our fight, flight, or freeze mode. When we are in self-preservation mode, we no longer are in a place where we can carry on a sound conversation.
Have you ever finished some extreme cardio like a sprint or have you ever been the victim of a scare prank? If you could recall those incidents, more than likely if someone tried to talk to you right after, you may have not had the words to reply.
When we try to resolve issues in a flooded state, we resort to screaming, attacking, and criticizing. It is pretty difficult to come to a compromise if we are on the defense or on the attack.
A time-out is NOT a means of escape and to sweep the issue under the rug, or to stonewall. The point of a time-out is to self-soothe and to restore balance, so that we can come back to the conversation.
The Set Up
Rules for the Time-Out
Establishing agreed boundaries of taking time-outs are crucial for consistency and trust.
- Decide how long a time out should be. An hour minimum has been the norm for most people, but it is YOUR relationship. Find a time that works best for you. Setting up a time is very important. It helps to reduce anxiety and it holds us accountable to reengaging in the conversation.
- Decide on a nonverbal cue that a time-out is warranted. As aforementioned, when we become flooded, we may lose our words. A nonverbal cue may help in this situation, and no, the middle finger is not the cue I was referring to.
- The partner that calls the time-out is the holder of the time-in. After a time-out is called and the partner that has called the time-out has reached homeostasis, it is their job to call a time-in. Check with your partner, “I am calling a time-in if you are ready to continue the conversation.” If the other partner is not ready for a time-in, they then become the holder of the time-out. However, they must put a new time (hopefully shorter time) limit on this time-out. “I am not ready for a time-in, I still need about 15 minutes, I will call a time-in then.”
What to Do During a Time-Out
- We should be deliberate in our time-outs. We are deliberately trying to get back to homeostasis or a place of calm. Some people need “down regulation” such as using deep breathing or meditation. Others may need “up regulation” such as a running or a brisk walk. Once our physiological needs are met, we can then go into processing our emotions.
- Emotions are neither good nor bad, they just are. When processing our emotions we examine the source of those emotions and how we regulate these feelings (manage our behaviors as a result of these feelings) when engaged in the difficult conversation. Understand that your feelings or emotions are yours to own. Take responsibility for your actions when experiencing your emotions.
- Identify ways of staying present during the conversation and being a generous listener. When we focus on listening to listen while still being mindful of our physiological responses, it increases our ability to have a productive conversation.
Reengaging After the Time-Out
- Compliment Sandwiches are amazing for reengaging in the conversation after a time-out. “Thank you for the time-out, we still need to discuss this issue, but I appreciate you for respecting my need for a time-out.” Placing gratitude before and after the “meat” helps to gently reengage into the conversation.
- If you need another time-out, take it. Take as many time-outs as needed as long as you continue to reengage in a healthy manner with a real attempt at understanding.
Time-outs are not a means of solving issues. It is a tool to help us engage in difficult conversations while managing our emotions. Time-outs help us to be kind to our partners and ourselves when difficult conversations or conflicts arise in our relationships.
I hope that you find this tool helpful and feel free to ask questions or comment.
Live and love a healthy and consensual life.