When Conflict Happens, Call A Marital “Time Out”

Written with love, by Pastor Dave Page

There are times in conflict when we feel overwhelmed with emotion and find it hard to think clearly. Anger gets the best of us and we say things that we later regret. During such times, we lose sight of our own responsibility and focus on what is wrong with our partner. Communication breaks down and the more we try to address the problem, the worse it gets.

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In his book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, John Gottman, Ph.D. emphatically states that one of the keys to marital success is not whether or not you argue with your spouse but “how you argue – whether your style escalates tension or leads to a feeling of resolution.”

Gottman states that it’s more important to “deal with the emotions” that get stirred up during a disagreement than to actually solve the immediate problem at hand. In working with couples, his major goal is to break the cycle of negativity and give whatever natural repair mechanisms you already have in your repertoire a chance to work.”

One antidote to a heated argument is to take a break, what I like to call a Time Out. Just like in sports, a coach or player will call a time out to help the team catch their breath, regroup, strategize, and to stop the momentum of the other team. In marriage, a Time Out creates space for couples to calm down, to take responsibility for their own actions and to get into a different state of mind to find solutions.

Below are 6 tips for taking a marital time out:

1. Mutually Agree to Use Time Outs as a Conflict Resolution Tool in Your Marriage

You agree that you will call time outs to calm down, to change your state of mind, to create space and have some time to reflect on what to do next.

2. Time Out Means All Discussion Stops Immediately

All discussion about what each person wants from the other stops until both people can return to a calm and rational mind and body. Time Out is temporary with a promise both parties will return to rational discussion later. Do NOT use a Time Out as an avoidant mechanism. Important issues must be addressed and there are healthy ways to discuss when both people are calm.

3. Respect the Time Out

Just like in pick up basketball, when a player calls a foul on another player you respect the call and give him the ball. When a spouse calls a time out you respect the call and drop your end of the rope immediately.

4. Make the Time-Out Short

I encourage couples to do ten-minute time outs. Whichever spouse calls the Time Out becomes the timer. That spouse will watch the clock and call “time in” after ten minutes. If tempers still haven’t calmed down you have an option to call back-to-back Time Outs if needed. Either spouse can call a Time Out at any time.

5. Soothe Yourself and Reflect on a New Course of Action

Use the time to soothe yourself. Focus on relaxing as you take deep breaths. Let go of any angry or self-righteous thoughts. Once you are calm, use the time to reflect on why you were feeling angry. What might you be feeling underneath the anger? Sad? Hurt? Lonely? Afraid? Can you try to express those softer, more vulnerable feelings to your spouse when you begin talking again? Consider what you might do differently when you re-engage.


6. Re-Engage and Repair

Remember that the crisis is not over. Once your heart rate has returned to normal and you have a better sense of what triggered it and what else you were feeling besides just being angry, its time to re-engage and talk things through. Sometimes after this calming down period, partners realize that what they were fighting about wasn’t important enough to fight about. Sometimes partners agree to disagree on a particular subject. Neither of you may want to stir up the negative feelings again so you may be tempted not to discuss it anymore. However, it is really important to repair the damage that was done and to apologize for the hurts caused by the things you said or did prior to the Time Out.

Some things to avoid when calling a Time Out include: storming away, staying angry, and trying to resolve problems when you’re hungry, tired or stressed out. Contrary to popular belief, often times the best thing we can do is to go to bed angry (as long as we re-visit the issue in a timely manner, and don’t carry the grudge with us throughout the next day). The next morning can bring with it a different perspective and a softened heart.

Time Outs can be an effective tool in your marital tool belt.