Time Out for Couples?
Updated: Nov 1, 2022
Worksheets and Thoughts on Time Out and Cool Down from Dr. Jen Ripley, Psychology Professor and Author of Couple Therapy A New Hope Focused Couple Approach
Humans can lose it! Our brains are made in such a way that we care PASSIONATELY about things that we love. If you are offensive and demeaning towards a sports team that I don't particularly care about, and don't follow, I will let it go. I won't care. But if you offend my family, or my deeply-held beliefs, or my lifelong passion for a sports team- best stand back. Things are about to get ugly.
We particularly can lose it when we are angry with our spouse or those we deeply love. The very person we love most in the world, can make us more angry than anyone. It's shocking what I have heard in my office from two people who deeply love each other.
"He wouldn't listen to me, so I yelled at the top of my lungs!"
"She was walking away so I grabbed her hand and made her stand there with me"
We like to think of ourselves as rational, thoughtful, moral creatures. But a threat to our primary attachment to our mate can cause anyone to lose it. What to do next?
Flooding- Fighting- and Fleeing vs. Intentional Time Out
Flooding is when you feel so emotionally overwhelmed with fear, anger, sadness, loneliness or rage that you are emotionally flooded out.
Ever heard the old saying that a drowning person will drag you under too?
Flooding is characterized by feeling like the animal part of our brain has taken charge, and is hard-charging for our goals. We sometimes do things we later regret when flooded with harsh and heavy emotions.
Time of flooding are times to pay attention! Notice what is happening here. The decisions you make in the time of a flood can make or break your life.
Fighting or Fleeing are our human response to emotional floods.
We either decide to fight it out, in the hopes to reach our goals through argument or even physical altercations like grabbing, pinning, pulling, or pushing. We might also deal with the flood by fleeing- avoiding the flood, trying to get to higher ground where things are less threatening. Both of these responses are deeply built into our animal brains and we need them.
How can we intentionally Time Out?
In the midst of an emotional flood, you can use a well-practiced response of a time-out. It is a kind of fleeing, but it's an intentional one. Fighting with your mate when you are especially angry and emotionally flooded can lead to words or deeds that can cause real damage. It is better to intentionally take a break and cool down.
Why step back?
If either partner is flooded, nothing good is going to happen in the conversation. Even using persuasion to fight will likely lead to bad decisions, bad intent, and bad feelings about each other. If your partner is trying to get away from you in an argument then it may be to prevent saying or doing something they will regret.
What to say?
It's best to say "I don't feel like I can say or do anything here without hurting our relationship. This isn't going well. I need a break. Let's talk later"
Where to step back?
When things are calm between you and your mate you should discuss this. Where do you often have your arguments? In your room? In the living room? On the phone? If either of you needs to take a break- where will you go? Can you leave the room for a while?
Who to step back?
Often one person in a relationship has more ability to notice things are going wrong, and call for a break. You might discuss your natural abilities to do this, and how your past experiences have influenced where you are in the ability to take a time out. Some people really struggle with this across relationships in their life, and if this is you then some deeper exploration of patterns and underlying beliefs about how to be in relationships when there is conflict would be great.
What to do DURING the Time Out?
This may be the most important question to answer. Some people ruminate during a Time out. A friend of mine once said that when he fought with his wife (of 50 years!) he would go to the garage and bang around and mumble to himself "She can't say that to me. I don't deserve this. What is wrong with her?" Can you relate? Garage-talking is rumination- it's focusing on how you were hurt and what your come-back speech is going to say. This will only cause you distress and pain.
The best thing to do is create a Time Out alternative list of things to do. Some people go on a run/ exercise, others pick up a good youtube comedy act, some go and garden or cook something, while others will do some prayer and meditation. Anything that helps change your brain's focus away from fight & flight towards loving each other.
I do not think we can do this...(cue sinking heart and hopeless wave of emotion)
I'll confess that this was something I struggled with in my 20s especially before I had learned about Time Out. I really thought that if we took a time out, my husband wouldn't talk to me about the issue in a good way in the future. Ya know- it wasn't a good conversation in the flood zone anyway so what a bad plan to try and continue talking during a flood. I just felt desperate and upset, and lacked the skills to handle conflict well in my marriage. I wasn't even sure we could learn how to disagree or have tense conversations in loving ways. But we did learn.
Some good reflection can help to understand why is this especially hard for you. Do you have a fear you will be abandoned (emotionally or physically)? Did your parents, or a past relationship, train you to respond to conflict in ways that are not healthy? Do you sometimes feel unlovable and hold on too tightly? If you are not in control of what happens in your relationship, does that seem like an intolerable situation? Do you tend to blame your spouse and ruminate about problems? These, and other good questions, can be excellent ways to understand and grow as a person in relationships and as a couple.
And release you to a good time out.
Hope focused couple counseling can help you learn how to have a great time out! To do it well in your life generally, and your relationship.