Time out procedures help couples work through conflict in a constructive manner. Research shows that when humans are flooded with emotions, the parts of a brain related to rational thinking and perspective-taking shutdown. Effective communication is possible when we are uncomfortable, but not when we are flooded by emotions.
A timeout is not for avoiding difficult topics. When you are discussing something that causes you to feel tense, first work to stay calm and focus on what your partner is saying. If you are finding that you cannot focus on what your partner has to say because you are becoming too upset, this is the time to call a time out. Don’t wait till it’s too late! It’s helpful to call a timeout as soon as you realize the interaction is becoming too “heated” or “triggered” to communicate without criticism or defensiveness.
Don’t just walk away. Tell your partner you are calling a temporary time-out and specify how long it will last (30min-1hr). Some people agree on a specific hand signal they can give to indicate they need to take a time out, as long as both partners understand what it means. Once time out has been called, the conversation needs to stop immediately. Demonstrate your maturity by resisting the temptation to get in the last word. Even if you don’t want to take a time-out, you should respect the other person’s need for one.
Some people feel concerned that their partner will leave and not return during a time out, so it is important to let your spouse know where you will be, and if possible remain within your home. If your partner will not agree to your leaving the room, try remaining where you are and being quiet. Respect the important boundary of not communicating during the time-out (with the exception of safety-related emergencies).
During the time out, work on calming yourself down through a distracting activity, deep breathing, or doing something physical like walking or sweeping. Don’t use the time to dwell on the conflict.
The person who called the time out should initiate a check-in after the designated time period (30min-1hr). If, at the check-in, emotions remain too heated to continue the conversation, you may schedule a discussion time for the the next day or agree to reserve the issue for a counseling session.