Timeouts: Not Just For Kids Anymore

Most adults are familiar with the idea of the timeout. You give a child a timeout when they get too pushy, too loud, or too angry. Ask a parent how a timeout is helpful and he or she might say, “I give my child a timeout so he/she can cool down. Kids listen and behave better when they’ve had a chance to cool off.” Why would adults be any different? Adults, as much as children, get a bit out of line when they get upset. When adults get angry, they cross lines, they say things they don’t mean, or worse, they say things they do mean and can’t take back. Adults can use timeouts just as much as children can. But as opposed to children, adults don’t have anyone to give them a timeout when they might need one.

The funny thing is, as adults, we don’t generally need someone to give us a timeout to keep from crossing certain lines, or at least certain people. When pulled over by the police, most people keep their cool, even if the cop acts like a jerk. Why? Well, because we don’t want to make a bad situation any worse than it already is. Or what about when an adult is at work, and feels insulted by a boss? That would also be a moment when it might be hard to stay calm. Why not, in that situation, use a little colorful language deserving of a timeout? Well, because there too, you wouldn’t want to make the situation any worse. You wouldn’t want to look bad in front of your colleagues and you wouldn’t want to bite the hand that feeds you, as the saying goes.

What about at home then? Can we adults keep it together at home or do we need timeouts? Judging from police statistics on domestic disputes, I’d say say adult self-control often stops, or diminishes dramatically, at our own front doors. Why is it that so many lapses in self-control (minor and major) seem to happen at home and with loved ones? It seems to me that at home, the one place where timeouts happen the most – typically given to kids by parents – would be the best place to find adults taking a timeout when they start to get upset, not just the kids. So why not? My best guess would be that at home, you can’t get fired and you can’t get fined – though having household citations may not be a bad idea in some homes. But in any case, there are usually less immediate consequences for getting angry and ‘crossing the line’ at home, so it’s easier to slip into line-crossing language and other bad habits there, more so than at work for instance.

When adults get angry, enough that a timeout would help, we usually slip into right/wrong or win/lose language. This is a big ‘ol red flag for when adults could use a timeout. This habit comes out when we feel hurt, angry, or when we take offense and usually follows like this: the hurt person, or victim, accuses their partner, now a perpetrator, of doing something illicit, or worse, being something illicit – “you don’t care” or “you’re a jerk” for example.  Think of your own moments of feeling mistreated and getting angry. When feeling hurt you might start reviewing the other person’s behavior, listing out their many crimes, first presently, then similar examples come to you from the past too. You search the facts of the case at hand for all evidence that your rising anger is justified, and then, with righteousness on your side, you set out to prove you are right and they are wrong, completely discounting even the possibility of hearing their explanation or experience. When one adult slips into this style of thinking and talking it’s hard enough. If two spouses do, or parents with their kids, then conflicts turn into fights and life at home can get really ugly.

You might say, “But I am right and he really is a jerk?” or “But I am right and she really doesn’t care?”. Depending on the circumstances, I’ll usually say “you’re probably right… to some extent at least”. And when you’re angry and hurt what you often want is to be right, so there you go. You’re right. You win… Are you happy though? I sometimes ask clients to recall any movie or TV show depicting a couple fighting. Then further I ask if at the end of the fight, if one person was declared right and then all parties in the fight lived happily ever after?… Nope. Never. Why? Because fights don’t happen that way. Fights, with their win/lose, or right/wrong foundation are great ways to divide people, not reconcile them.

When couples, and parents with their kids too, give way to anger in their speaking, there is a subtle but real change. The loving couple, or happy family, imperceptibly, but truly, morph into opponents. It may only be temporary, but as anger rises, the angry person feels like the stakes rise too, and that foundation of loving connection, usually felt with the other, fades out of all perception and even memory. As that felt love and connection evaporate for the moment, so does restraint, which leads to greater escalation, louder voices, doubling down on your position, holding your ground, protecting yourself, and at its worst, hurting the other verbally or even physically.

The best reason to take a time out is to keep yourself safe from losing your mind. That’s pretty much what happens when you forget yourself, forget your love for the person in front of you, and see only an opponent. Opponents are okay in games, but even in games, heated moments run a risk about which my Franco-American grandmother, whom we called Memere, warned us, “ca va tourner un joue des chienes”, that’s going to turn into a game of dogs.

In tense moments between couples, a big problem with win/lose or right/wrong language is that it’s really tempting to match it when you hear it. It’s hard, though highly worthwhile, to refrain from this language and speak from an orientation of we, not you vs me. Strong couples are not couples who avoid conflict at all cost. Strong couples are couples who handle conflict together and prevent conflicts from turning into fights. One useful tool, I might even call it THE most useful tool, in keeping conflicts from turning into fights, is the timeout. You can set this up with your spouse or family as part of the general house rules.

The rules of the timeout are simple. Adults take their own time outs. Kids can take, or be given, time outs. When you are feeling angry, or faced with an angry person and you want to prevent yourself from getting angry, take a timeout. Timeouts are predetermined in length. This is highly important. It prevents any party from feeling rejected or abandoned via timeout. When one of you recognizes a need, give the universal “timeout” hand signal, or simply call a time out verbally. The two of you separate for thirty minutes. During this time go for a walk around the block, get a coffee, sit in another room, take a shower, do a chore or two.  After 30 minutes, the timed out parties check in with each other. If either one or both of you are still feeling angry then continue the timeout for an hour more. At the next check in, if need be, extend the time out for 2 more hours, then half a day, then a whole day.

During a timeout, your main goal is simple, though not often easy. Cool off and come back.  You want to come down from anger, come out of a stance of you vs me and get back to that orientation of we. An orientation of we is the only way to approach a conflict effectively. An orientation of we rests on the foundation of the mutually held belief that “my spouse/partner wants me to be happy and I want them to be happy too”. Relationships will have conflict. And conflict is the start of fights. Timeouts aren’t meant to avoid conflict, though. Timeouts help keep conflict from turning into fights. So once you cool off and come back to that orientation of we, hopefully you can see your spouse again as a loving partner and you’ll both be back in a better frame of mind.  You both want each other to be happy and to be happy with each other. Great place to be, right? And, you’ll be better able to see some of his point of view again and he’ll be better able to see yours too.

How do you know you’re not done with a timeout? If any part of you still feels angry, and reacts to your partner as an opponent, or worse, an obstacle to your own happiness, then you still need time out. Some signs that you need more time out in your timeout include thinking in angry or defensive tones, thoughts like, “He always…”, or “She never…”, or “What a jerk!”, or “I can’t believe I’m married to this…” And if you’re still feeling angry and your thoughts sound like these, some different methods or techniques can be used to temper your anger and come back around to that orientation of we.

First, give yourself permission to feel a little anger. Feeling angry is okay and you probably do have some good reason to feel a little angry or annoyed. The problem, generally, is not feeling angry but that heightened anger lends itself to retaliatory responses. Taking a timeout gives your anger a little time to settle into annoyance, disappointment, sadness, anxiety etc. Those are emotions that are a little easier to handle from an orientation of we. Second, remember that when you’re still mad you want to be right and you’ll be looking for an opponent and evidence against them, rather than a lover with the reasons to connect with them.  Try looking for exceptions to the always/never thoughts about your partner so as to sooner regain a grasp on the love you feel for him/her.  Third, let go of some of the angry thinking. Replace it for the moment. That’s where you take that walk, get that coffee, or go get a quick workout. Let those angry and opponent oriented thoughts subside again. In the course of the timeout you’ll come to a point when you actively choose to return to the we orientation. You might need to let the heat die down enough to make that shift, or wait for the weight of the moment to pass, but in the end it doesn’t happen on its own. You will exercise some choice to return to that we orientation.

So you’re done with your timeout, you feel love for your spouse coming back in and you remember again that he/she does want you to be happy too. Do you then jump right back into the topic of conflict again? No way! Give yourselves a break. Take a bit of time. The strain of a fight is like popping a shoulder or elbow out of joint. To fix it you put all the parts back in alignment, but still give it time to tighten up again before taking on a workload. Decide, as part of your timeout system, when next you’ll revisit the topic – especially topics that must be addressed – and prepare yourself a bit, before hand, to approach the matter from that we orientation knowing that you’ll both be tempted to shift back to fight stances.

The point here is NOT to avoid hot topics. The point here is to build a discipline, that of speaking with your wife, husband, mother, father, son, daughter or sibling, always from a place of loving respect and connection, especially when it’s hard to do. This is simple once you get the gist of it, however, it’s hard to maintain. When the heat rises and the tension builds, a timeout can help you do that.

If you want to hear more about time-outs, and, with your spouse/partner, learn to communicate more effectively and have conflicts without the fight, e-mail me at Andre@bostoneveningtherapy.com, or call me at (617) 835-6581 to schedule a consultation.

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