The Art of Argument Deescalation: Creating a Collaborative Time Out Plan
When problems in a relationship grow, this sometimes boils over into active conflict that can feel quite destructive to the health of the relationship. Examples of this include saying things you’ll later regret or will be difficult to take back, and getting angry in a way that scares your partner.
Time Outs are one of the most fundamental skills in all of couple therapy in that much of the work of couple can’t reliably be done without them (if they’re needed). In other words, couple therapy often involves the discussion of emotionally activating content, and Time Outs are an essential skill that can be used to do so in a way that creates physical and emotional safety for both partners.
The main idea behind time outs is that you are agreeing to temporarily stopping a discussion because you recognize that continuing discussing in that moment is inefficient and would only make things worse. It should be clear that it is not an agreement to never discuss the topic.
In fact, the most common reason why time outs might not work at a given time is because one or both partners choose not to honor them. The reason why a partner might not honor a time out when called for is that they see the time out as a tool used by the other person to escape the argument. This happens a lot in the demand-withdrawal communication pattern, which involves a desired change from one partner, but the more that partner pursues that desired change, the more the other partner pulls away from the discussion.
For time outs to be successful, it requires buy-in from both partners. The following are a few helpful principles for successful time outs:
1) The more emotionally escalated you become in an argument, the more difficult it becomes to have the foresight to call a time out. For this reason, recognizing signs of anger building earlier in the process can give you the opportunity to call for a time out when it is easier to do so.
2) Time Outs should feel consistent and predictable to both partners because they have the same understanding of how they are used.
3) Time Outs are temporary to help both partners calm down before continuing to discuss something. They are not meant to be used to avoid dealing with relationship problems or to ignore a partner’s feelings. They work best when paired with other relationship skills.
The Stoplight Metaphor is a helpful one for thinking about how to use time outs:
When you’re in the green zone, you feel at ease talking with your partner and don’t feel any tension. This is where you likely are most of the time when you’re not in an argument with your partner.
When you’re in the yellow zone, you start to feel tension, annoyance, irritability, or even anger and resentment toward your partner. You may notice some emotional activation showing up in your voice. In this zone, it becomes more difficult to express yourself well without further escalating the conflict. It can sometimes still be possible to have a productive conversation in the yellow zone, but when you sense that the conversation isn’t leading anywhere helpful, it’s at this place that Time Outs can be most effectively used.
When you’re in the red zone, you are too far gone to have a productive back-and-forth. You may notice that your aim becomes to insult or hurt your partner the way that they hurt you, or to win the argument at all costs. If a Time Out hasn’t been called already, it is helpful to employ one here to limit the damage of the exchange to the relationship.
Creating a Collaborative Time Out Plan
Once both partners are on board with the idea of trying to make time outs work for them, you can put that into action by creating a collaborative Time Out Plan. You should each have your own version of a time out plan, as your answers to the questions may differ from one another.
The first question to be able to answer in creating a plan is:
How will I know when to call a Time Out?
In other words, what internal body cues (e.g., heart beating quickly, feeling my face get hot, feeling a pit in my stomach) or cues in my environment (e.g., my voice raising, my partner’s voice raising, partner’s body language) that indicate it would be helpful to call for a time out.
I think it would be very difficult for anyone to expect themselves to remember to call for a time out unless they are first cognizant of when it would be best employed.
The next important question to answer in creating a time out plan is:
How should I express the need for a Time Out?
In answering this question, it will be important to check in with your partner about how different phrasing might be received. For example, the phrasing “YOU need a time out,” or even sometimes “WE need a time out” can come across to the recipient as a judgment or insult, which can further escalate the conflict. In these cases, taking responsibility for the need via the phrasing “I need a time out right now” can be a helpful alternative.
It should also be clear in the way that you express the need for a time out that it is for the purpose of valuing the relationship with your partner, not used as a gotcha or seemingly used to score points in the great argument tally. This gives the person calling for a Time Out the best chance of it being honored by the other person and being effective.
The next key question to ask yourself is:
Where will I go during a Time Out?
For this, it can be helpful to think of any emotionally safe spaces that are available to you, such as a room that feels like yours. The primary purpose of a Time Out is to be able to calm your nervous system down enough to be able to have a productive conversation.
Whenever possible, physically removing yourself from the room is most faithful to the spirit of the Time Out, because so much can be communicated non-verbally that this is likely to keep your nervous system activated.
It is important to acknowledge that an ideal Time Out is not always possible. For example, you’re in the car on a long road trip – the best you can do for a Time Out would be to close your eyes and listen to headphones for a bit (only if you’re not the driver of course! No lawsuits!).
Similarly, when you have children, it’s not always an option to have both people leave the situation. One way to determine how to handle it could be the person who is feeling a greater sense of upset or feeling “out of control” leaves. However, at the same time, if the tendency is for one person to be more emotionally activated overall, this can leave the other partner feeling the constant burden of picking up the pieces emotionally, which can be damaging to the relationship.
Ultimately, it is important for both partners to discuss these contingencies so that they have a plan for how to handle it that both are comfortable with.
The next part of the Time Out plan is not a question to answer, but rather some tips for what you can do during a Time Out to help it work more effectively for you to prevent you from simply continuing to stew on your anger.
1) Be aware of unhelpful thoughts. When we are angry or upset, we can make ourselves even more upset by our ways of thinking. For example, we often focus on the most negative aspects of the situation, on how we have been wronged by the other person, and about how we will get back at them. In the heat of the moment, we also tend to assume the worst in our partners.
2) Look for other interpretations. Once you are aware of your unhelpful thoughts while angry or upset, you can do something about them. It can be useful to look for other interpretations during the Time Out, such as “She’s feeling really stressed in general today,” or “I probably didn’t help the situation very much myself.”
3) Think about what you want to communicate to your partner when the Time Out has ended. This doesn’t mean to try to think of ways to win the argument or get back at your partner. Instead, think about what it is that you really want to say and practice saying it in a healthy, non-aggressive way. It can be helpful in this process to write your thoughts down on paper.
4) Be aware of feelings other than anger. With most arguments, anger isn’t the only feeling present. Usually, there are other feelings such as sadness, hurt, and rejection. These feelings can cause both you and your partner to say things that you don’t mean. It’s important to talk about these feelings once the Time Out has ended.
5) Use relaxation strategies. Your main focus during Time Outs should be to relax so you can think more clearly. People differ in how they relax. Going for a walk, reading, going for a drive, listening to music, deep breathing, and watching YouTube are some examples of activities that people find relaxing.
The final part of creating a solid Time Out plan is answering the question:
How will I know when and how to end the Time Out?
This is, of course, a very key part to be aligned with your partner on because, as stated earlier, if they believe that the Time Out will go on forever then they will be less inclined to honor it, causing it to be ineffective.
One common way couples handle this question is that when both people’s nervous systems have calmed down enough, then it can be helpful to each share what you wanted to express during that time in a way that’s more thoughtful.
It’s important to note here that everyone differs in how long it takes their nervous system to calm down (and there are things you can try to do to help this process along). You could talk with your partner about developing a system of checking in after a certain amount of time (for example, 30 mins or 60 mins) to see where the other person is at in their calming down process. This way, you’re not required to guess (likely incorrectly) about when the other person is feeling ready.
I want to stress one more time that having a good plan for coming back together when the time out has ended is crucial for making them go well. This is the part that is reinforcing for the partner who is more desperately feeling the need to be heard, which then supports the success of Time Outs in reducing destructive conflict in the relationship.
In this process, it is often helpful to have the assistance of a couple therapist as a third-party invested in supporting the health of your relationship. If you live in Seattle or the greater Washington area, and are interested in working on this via telehealth, please feel free to contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation today or learn more about my approach on my website.