Adults Need Time Outs Too

Published on
January 6, 2022

Reading the title of this blog might get you in your feels a little bit. I don't know anyone who likes being told "you need a time out," but believe it or not, adults - particularly in conflict - need them too! There's even biological, scientific reasoning for why timeouts are valuable in conflict, even if they're difficult to execute.

John and Julie Gottman are big relationship researchers and they discovered that couples who take time outs when conflicts are getting escalated tend to have better conflict resolution skills (amongst a few other skills that these couples execute). Time outs are valuable because during a conflict, folks have a tendency to get flooded. When you're flooded, this means your heart rate is over 99 beats per minute - your prefrontal cortex (logic/reasoning part of the brain) starts to shut down and your limbic system or brain stem (the lizard brain, if you will) starts to take over, putting us into fight, flight, or freeze. When we're in fight, flight or freeze mode, our defenses are up - we can't logically process information anymore because we're just trying to survive the moment - ergo, a timeout is needed.

Photo by Sonja Langford on Unsplash

To take a timeout, you must recognize your own threshold for being flooded and notice when you are about to or have already tipped over the edge. You might also need to be aware of when this happens for your partner. Common signs that you are flooded are when you are: shouting, using expletives, shutting down, feeling like your brain is fuzzy/foggy, you're losing the thread in the conversation, you feel hot and are breathing rapidly, etc. There are other signs, but these are some common ones. When you notice this starting to happen, it's best to request a timeout. You can do this by saying:

  • I'm feeling overwhelmed and need to take a break from this conversation
  • I need a timeout
  • We need a timeout/break
  • I can tell I'm getting flooded. I really need to step away from this conversation for a little bit to refocus

You can request a time out in all sorts of ways, I just don't recommend saying "you need a timeout" if you notice your partner is flooded... that doesn't tend to go over well.

The next important step after requesting a timeout is to agree that you will come back together. Timeouts should be at least 20 minutes and no more than 24 hours (if you can help it). The 20 minutes truly allows you to cool down and the 24 hours helps the person who didn't request the timeout to feel less anxious about the conversation. You could agree to come back to things after dinner, in the morning, to check back in in an hour, etc. Whatever the timeframe is, just make sure your partner knows that you intend to come back.

To the person who was a told a timeout is needed, it is crucial that you honor your partner's request. I know this can be painfully difficult. You are anxious and worried and know that if you could just talk it out, everything would be okay. The request for a timeout might stir up a lot of anxieties and fears about the state of your relationship. Remember, the timeout is temporary and necessary. Your partner is acknowledging that they can no longer process logically in this moment and will only say/do things they will regret in attempts to protect themselves, so ultimately, the timeout is healthy and helpful for both of you. Therefore, honor the request. Both of you during the timeout should engage in activities that help decrease anxiety and keep you from ruminating on the conflict. Some options are:

Photo by Jared Rice on Unsplash
  • Exercise (walk, run, yoga, swim, hike in nature, etc.)
  • Journal your feelings
  • Call a friend
  • Watch a funny video
  • Read a book
  • Focus on your breathing (slow it down - inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 2 seconds, exhale for 6, hold for 2)

There are many different ways to decrease anxiety and to take a mental break from the fight. Just make sure you're not ruminating on it in a negative way that keeps you spiraling.

Lastly and most importantly... come back to the conversation. This is now an exercise in trust building between you and your partner. If you requested the timeout, don't sweep it under the rug. Make a plan to bring it back up to your partner so you can revisit it and they can know that if you request a timeout, it's not because you just want to avoid conflict. This gives you both an opportunity to appreciate the value of a timeout by processing the conversation in a more productive way, now that you are both de-escalated. If you continue to find yourselves gridlocked in the conversation and flooded again and again, it might be a worthwhile conversation to bring to a therapist to help mediate the conversation and try to offer a new perspective so you can hear each other differently.

Overall, be mindful of how you are showing up in conflict. Timeouts can actually be really beneficial to both of you and as you continue to notice your threshold for flooding, you may even find that you're able to avoid big fights more often because you now know what gets you going. So, honor yourself and your relationship by taking breaks as needed. They can actually be really beneficial!

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