Conflict Resolution Tool: Time Out

Conflict Resolution Tool: Time Out

Conflict Resolution Tool – Time Out: Every couple has disagreements. If you are with a partner long enough you are bound to come across something in which you two have opposing views and that’s completely normal. But once in a while (or rather frequently for some) there comes a point in a disagreement where emotions are high, both partners are repeating themselves, and nothing is getting resolved.  Uh oh, you’re gridlocked. In times like these here’s a quick conflict resolution tool frequently used by therapists on how to communicate effectively: try a time out!

A time out is a communication/conflict resolution tool used when a couple recognizes that they are having difficulties resolving a particular issue through communication. To help you manage conflict, agree with your partner ahead of time that the two of you will be using a time out. You can tell when a time out is needed by one or more of these signs:

  1. Repetition- Repetition is the language of the unheard! If you notice that you or your partner are repeating the same statement or sentiment it is likely that you don’t feel the other person understands your statement or doesn’t understand the magnitude of your statement.
  2. High emotional intensity- If partners are yelling/screaming, cursing, crying, etc. then they are likely quite emotional at that moment. It is difficult to communicate and resolve conflict when highly upset.
  3. Signs unique to you- You know yourself and your partner! If there are certain signs that are unique to your relationship that always seem to occur during a breakdown of communication, pay attention! Those are your unique time out signs!

Before ever enacting a timeout it’s best to sit with your partner and create ground rules. First you should discuss how time outs are called. Either partner can call a time out once they notice the signs as long as they do so without putting down the topic (ex “whatever I’m done with this I’m calling a time out) or their partner (ex “You’re being ridiculous; I need a time out). The proper way to call a time out respects your partner, the topic itself, and recognizes that the two of you are at an impasse: “Hey, I noticed we’re just repeating ourselves, but this is important, and I want to get to the bottom of it. Can we take a time out?” Time outs should be respected by both partners when called. 

Next should be deciding upon an established time to revisit the topic. This too should be discussed prior to utilizing a time out. Perhaps you guys will chat in an hour or tomorrow night after dinner? Whatever works best for your schedule, set this time period and stick to it! It’s best if both partners agree to take responsibility for reestablishing the conversation to ensure it doesn’t get forgotten or avoided. Many relationships have partners with differing conflict resolution needs with regards to timing. One person often needs to discuss issues as soon as possible to gain closure while their partner needs time to process their own thoughts and feelings before talking things out. Delaying the conversation too long will likely cause discomfort for the partner who needs to talk soon and discussing the topic too soon will do the same to the partner who needs to wait. With this in mind time outs should be no more than a week and no less than an hour (I usually advise 24 hour time outs) so that neither partner has to experience discomfort for too long as this could have a negative effect, such as using your time out in a destructive manner.

Now that you’ve established your ground rules you should use your time out wisely. Once called it’s best that both partners separate briefly. Watch a tv show in another room or take a quick walk; the point of an initial separation is just to give each other time to calm down if emotions have run high during your argument and decrease the likelihood of starting to argue once more. While separated try and put yourself in your partner’s shoes with the guiding principle of: they aren’t trying to hurt you and their argument must make sense; you just don’t understand. If you and your partner are in a safe and healthy relationship they aren’t disagreeing to hurt you or your feelings, it’s simply how they feel/think. And if they feel so strongly about it then it must make sense to them. Put on your detective hat and try and figure out why! When you reconnect from a place of attempting to understand their perspective they’re more likely to try and understand yours.

Now just as you’ve tried on your partner’s “shoes”, it’s time to settle back into your own. Reflect on why you feel so strongly about your position. Think of the 5WH1 method: who, what, why, when, and how. 

  • Who are you really talking to? Are you responding to your partner, or does this topic remind you of someone else and you’re really responding to that person. 
    • Example: “You’re always complaining just like my ex.”
  • What about the topic is so upsetting?
    • Example: “I never feel like you listen to me and that makes me feel like my opinion just doesn’t matter to you.”
  • Why do you feel your position is correct? 
    • Example: “If we went on that expensive vacation, then we’d be broke; it just isn’t a good financial decision.”
  • When is your response referring to? Are you really angry about the topic or does it trigger a time when your partner behaved in a similar manner and that’s what’s so upsetting.
    • Example: “You had your phone faced down just like when you were cheating last year.”
  • How did you get your point across? Did you yell/scream, belittle your partner, or calmly explain your point?
    • Example: “No that doesn’t make any sense you’re being an idiot! vs I don’t understand, can you explain how you got that idea?”

Timeouts  used well easily helps you and your partner reunite with cooler heads and better equipped to communicate. The 5W1H method helps you avoid using your time out by considering all your partners errors or only honing in on why you’re right. Doing these actions instead of 5W1H often lead to doubling down on your own point of view, an inability to listen to your partner (why listen? You already know you’re right!), and maintains/heightens high emotions instead of decreasing them.

Once the set time you’ve previously discussed arrives and the two of you are ready to talk both partners should be making an effort to ensure the conversation resumes. This tip works best with a few practice runs. Try calling a timeout on something small just so you can get used to respecting time out when called and following the guidelines. If you recognize that the guidelines are being frequently broken, try talking with your partner and revising if needed. The most common mistakes that occur with trying a time out for the first time are using them to punish your partner (If that’s how you’re going to be I’m not talking to you!), never returning to the topic paused by the time out, or using your time apart to better your own argument and find discrepancies in your partner’s point of view. If miscommunication and disagreements still persist it may be beneficial to seek couple’s therapy to ascertain where difficulties are arising and assist you two in resolving them amicably. Here at The Center for Growth/Sex Therapy in Philadelphia we’d be happy to help you and your partner sort through your communication issues and find more positive and productive ways to communicate. Schedule an appointment today at