31 Jan Reducing Destructive Conflict: How to Take a Time-Out

Posted at 10:00 pm in Couples Therapy by jlbworks

Much of the destructive conflict in relationships could be stopped if couples were better at taking time-outs. Why is this so important? John Gottman, in his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, discusses the phenomenon he calls “flooding.” He writes, “Flooding means that your spouse’s negativity—whether in the guise of criticism or contempt or even defensiveness—is so overwhelming, and so sudden, that it leaves you shell-shocked.” (p. 34) Gottman is a Seattle-based psychologist who has been studying couples in his marriage laboratory for over 25 years. He takes physiological measurements, with heart and blood pressure monitors, to learn what happens when couples get into conflicts.

Gottman continues: “When we monitor couples for bodily changes during a tense discussion, we can see just how physically distressing flooding is. One of the most apparent of these physical reactions is that the heart speeds up—pounding away at more than 100 beats per minute—even as high as 165…Hormonal changes occur, too, including the secretion of adrenaline, which kicks in the “fight or flight response.” Blood pressure also mounts. These changes are so dramatic that if one partner is frequently flooded during marital discussions, it’s easy to predict they will divorce.”

Gottman elaborates: “Recurring episodes of flooding lead to divorce for two reasons. First, they signal that at least one partner feels severe emotional distress when dealing with the other. Second, the physical sensations of feeling flooded—the increased heart rate, sweating, and so on—makes it virtually impossible to have a productive, problem-solving discussion…All those distressful reactions, like a pounding heart and sweating, occur because on a fundamental level your body perceives your current situation as dangerous.” (p. 36)

So what does Gottman recommend that we do, to intervene so that conflicts do not reach the stage where we become flooded? He suggests that couples learn to take time-outs, for a minimum of 20 minutes, as it takes our physiology at least that long, and sometimes longer, to calm down. Terrence Real, in his most recent book, The New Rules of Marriage, outlines in detail the importance of taking a time-out, and the steps to take to put this into practice. He states, “The best defense against verbal abuse is a formal time-out. While you have probably heard of this technique and possibly even used it with your children, time-outs work equally well with “unruly” adults. (p. 106)

Here are Real’s steps for taking a time-out: “When either partner calls a time-out—by saying the word “time-out,” by using the “T” hand signal, or by using any agreed-upon sign—the interaction comes to an immediate stop. The spoken or gestured signal is understood by both partners to be an abbreviation of the following words: ‘Dear partner, for whatever reason, right or wrong, I am about to lose it. If I stay here and keep this up with you, I am liable to do or say something stupid that I know I’m going to regret. Therefore I am taking a break to get a grip on myself and calm down. I will check back in with you responsibly.’”

Real adds, “Notice that the time-out is always taken from an “I” position, never from a ‘you’ position. It’ a singularly bad idea to tell your partner that he is being a brat and that he needs to take a time-out. You take it…Once the contract has been agreed to in advance, either partner has the right to leave the interaction whenever he or she chooses, and should not be stopped. The default interval for a time-out is twenty minutes. You can specify something else if you like, but if no time is specified, twenty minutes is when you need to check in. Checking in does not necessarily mean getting back together. You can check in—either in person or by telephone—and tell your partner that you need more time. With each extension, the time-out interval gets longer. The recommended length between check-ins is: 20 minutes; one or two hours; half a day; a whole day; overnight. Most people won’t need that much time. But some will.” (p. 106)

Real cautions couples about how to reconnect: “When reconnecting after a time-out, you must take a 24-hour moratorium on the subject that triggered the initial fight. After the time-out is over, whether it’s 20 minutes or an entire day, when you move back into contact with each other do not discuss the topic that started you off. If you do, you run a great risk of just getting wound up again. You can, and should, talk it over after 24 hours, but not before. If you find that either or both of you winds up calling a time-out every time a particular subject is discussed, this should indicate to you that, for now at least, you and your partner are unable to navigate that particular topic on your own. Either let go of the issue altogether, or get some help with it. While it may seem obvious, let me also say that the frequent need for a time-out whenever any serious issue is broached indicates the need for help.” (pp. 108-109)

Thus as both Gottman and Real affirm, the ability of couples to take time-outs and honor either partner’s request for a time-out is crucial to the overall health of the relationship. Real adds, “The extraordinary news is that, by using just this one instrument, time-outs, you can stop all abusive behaviors right now, today and from this day forward.” (p. 109)