The eminent marriage researcher, John Gottman Ph.d. has found that arguing couples escalate their physiology – heart rate, perspiration and respiration increase. He also found that it takes about 20 minutes to return to physiological “baseline” after these indicators spike. As many couples have found, it is almost impossible to have a rational conversation when your body is primed for “fight or flight.”
Enter, the Couples “Time-Out.”
It is often smart to take a short break during/after a conflict to calm down before trying to understand one another. But if you don’t know what you are doing, even the time-out can provoke the other partner! Here are some guidelines for a successful time-out.
- Prepare Ahead. Don’t just spring a time-out on your partner in the middle of an argument. Talk about it when you are calm and thinking rationally. Agree on the structure of the time-out with the following suggestions.
- Request the Time-out. Don’t demand it. Say, “I’d like to take a time-out to settle down. Are you okay with that?”
- Take Yourself Out. Don’t send the other person out of the room. Just take responsibility for your own emotional regulation and change your own location.
- Promise to Return. When people are distressed and their partner is seen leaving their presence, this can look like abandonment or rejection. So don’t forget to reassure your partner that “I’ll be back and we’ll talk about it then. . . I promise. I know it will end up a lot better.”
- Take at least 20 minutes. But probably not more than an hour. Longer than an hour might feel like an avoidance or rejection.
- Self-soothe during the time-out. Engage in long, slow exhalation breathing. Do progressive muscle relaxation. Take a walk or a bath. Read an inspirational book. Pet your dog a lot. Take a drink of juice to refuel your stressed brain. Hug your kid. Listen to soothing music. Clean out a drawer. And check for negative thoughts and repattern with something more true, kind, and empowering. Don’t speed off in your car . . .
- Touch When Reuniting. If possible, agree beforehand (Step #1), that when you reunite, you will connect physically in some way. Maybe you can give a brief hug or kiss. Perhaps you can hold hands or sit close to each other. Even offering a drink or snack could be a physical connection.
- Engage in dialogue. This is the perfect time to engage in the Talking Stick Dialogue, where you seek to understand the other person from their point of view.
- Problem-Solve. Until you feel that you are understood and understand the other person deeply, you will have little success creating solutions. So, problem solving may actually need to be delayed until the dialoguing has occurred a few times. Also, did you know your brain is powered by pure glucose and consumes 25% of your calories on a daily basis? Since cognitive and emotional stress taxes the brain, your brain can actually become glucose depleted and result and poor decision making skills. So, taking a drink of apple juice during your time-out may actually help you to think better when it comes to problem solving!
- Don’t give up. You are learning a new skill set in communicating when distressed. This takes practice! It takes patience and encouragement. Don’t fall into the thinking error that says, “No matter what I do it isn’t good enough! We can’t change! We should just give up!” Everyone I know feels that way at some time when learning a new skill. Just keep plugging away, and you will improve over time.