Time out can mean different things

By UB therapist Michael Maloney, LCPC

Time outs can often be a good thing.  When we have a stressful day at work or life just seems to keep putting pressure on us, having a dedicated time to ourselves is needed.  We need time to decompress and alleviate the stress so a time out is well deserved.

Time outs for young ones means a different thing.  They have misbehaved and are put in time out to think about what they did.  Sometimes it is helpful to remove a child from a situation to help deescalate a situation and allow them time to calm down.  

When couples use a time out there is often sometimes tense issues on using it but it can often be essential.

When couples fight, things tend to started feeling heated.  Often figuring out how to end the fight doesn’t seem clear. Sometimes one person will leave the fight or go for a walk.  The other partner may feel like they are trying escape from the issues of discussion or even go away to replan their strategy for the fight so they will win.  These are examples of how people can sometimes feel disconnected when enacting a timeout in a fight. But they can be important to use.

When we get in fights with our loved ones we often enact our Fight or Flight Response.  When we get into this Fight or Flight Response we are using “lower ordered strategies” or following more primal coping skills.  What does this mean?

Our Prefrontal Cortex is the area of our brain that processes how we manage conflicts and process different wants to problem solve and regulate emotions.  The Prefrontal Cortex does a lot in regulating thoughts, memory, and emotions. Because of this it uses us a lot of energy. Our Fight or Flight Response also requires a lot of energy in order to keep us safe.  The Fight or Flight Response has kept us safe in dangerous situations so when activated it gives priority to areas that is helpful to keeping the body physically safe. So the portions of the brain that handle “higher order strategies” (including the Prefrontal Cortex) get less energy while the areas that are responsible “lower order strategies” get more energy.

So when you are using “lower ordered strategies” while in Fight or Flight  you are not using all your best tools to handle conflict. Couples often feel like they are repeating fights and just playing out a script.  One or both partners may say things they don’t really mean. Partners become reactive and defensive and are unable to process what their significant other is trying to say.  Someone may be feeling so overwhelmed or over-stimulated that they feel like they are shutting down. Others may feel out of control and are unable to think straight. These fights are stuck using the primal tools that are not helpful in building safe dialog and productive communication.  

When I start with any client I will say I want this room to feel safe before we go into the uncomfortable.  For the couple, the relationship needs to feel safe before they can talk about the uncomfortable. Most fights often happen around uncomfortable topics such as finances, in-laws, issues that are triggering for one or both partners.  If the couple don’t feel safe in the relationship, the uncomfortable becomes overwhelming and then leads to fights which throws safety even further out the window.

Time out are helpful in building a safer conversation.  They allow us to use time to reengage our “higher order strategies” to process what is going on emotionally, intellectually, and compassionately.  This makes sense. So why can it be so hard to not give ourselves the space to give ourselves the time out? Partially because the relationship is important and we do not want to ignore issues that we see present with significant other.  During a fight people often feel distant or deffesive to the partner. They feel farther away and disconnected from the relationship. You can feel desperate to fix the problem, or to make sure you understand the issue, or to make sure your partner is actually listening to what you are saying.  It is sometimes hard to start a timeout, especially when we are in the primal headspace.

Below are some strategies to help use Timeouts into your relationships:

Know Your Break-Point

Your Break-Point is the point in the conversation you need a break.  Simple concept. But how will you know? If you are in the Fight or Flight response your Prefrontal Cortex is getting less energy.  It is still active, but it is slower that the rest of your instincts at this point. How do you get in the fight? What are your thinking patterns?  Some people describe that they are unable to think linearly or that they can’t think straight. Others notice that they bring up the same thing over and over again.  Still some people describe their brain starting to shut down and they start clamming up. Some people describe feeling stuck or just following a script. What is your body like when you are at this Break-Point?  Some people describe their body stiffening up. You might feel your body sagging like it is losing energy. Conversely you might feel overheated. Everyone is different in how their bodies and brains manage this.  Understanding what you and your partner experience can help find the Break-Point in your fights. Sharing this might even help you spot when your partner’s Break-Point is going on.

Set Expectations

The first things is to set expectations with your partner.  When one partner leaves the argument and the other is out of the loop then they can feel hurt and/or become even angier.  They feel that you cut them out of the conversation. And literally speaking you did, but there was a purpose for it. Most couples will recognize there is a time in the fight where it feels like it is just repeating things and they aren’t able to come up with new things.  Explaining that this is a break to help deescalate and bring your Prefrontal Cortex back online.

Safe Words

A safe word for the fight is literally a word or phrase that is calling Timeout.  The word con simply be Timeout. Other couples try to make sure that they use phrases that can help distract them.  A therapist shared with me that one of their client’s uses a character from their children’s cartoon show. They couldn’t help but laugh at the silly name that it helped lightened the mood.  One of my clients hated the word Timeout due to past experiences with the word so another phrase needed to be used.

Restarting the conversation

Partners usually do want to continue the conversation.  These topics are usually important. Couple have to talk about finances, but they are often heated issues.  Being about to talk about these uncomfortable topics is important and partners. The conversations should happen and letting a partner know that it will continue is helpful.  But the big question is when. Everybody is wired differently in how long it takes for the to reboot their Prefrontal Cortex. Some people are able to switch very quickly while others take a long time.  If you say that you’ll talk about it in 20 minutes and then after that 20 minutes the Prefrontal Cortex is still offline then it is probably not helpful to continue to conversation. Finding ways to restart the conversation is important.  

Many people that I see in couples therapy will say that they will restart the conversation while they are in couples therapy.  A therapist can help create a safe space to talk about issues and make sure both parties are heard. What is helpful is that the couple knows when they will be having the conversation even if it is not in the same day.  

During the Timeout Avoid Rumination

It is often common for one or both partners to think about the fight while they are taking a timeout.  This actually mentally keeps them in the fight and more importantly keeps them in the Fight or Flight mindset.  Find activities that can mentally distract you from thinking about the fight. Reading, watching a TV program that engages you, or talking to friends are often helpful activities.  

Meta-conversations: Talking about the fight

When you try using the Timeouts in your fights they might not work perfectly the first time.  There is a large chance this will happen. When you reenage the conversation talking about what works and what did not work is important.  You can build new strategies learning from your past mistakes.

Couples therapy can help build some of these and other tools.  It also helps set aside time to have these conversations on how the couple fight and how they can have healthy conversations.  It is hard when you have difficult conversations with your loved one and getting support can help.

On July 30th, our current electronic health system will transition to a new and advanced system to better serve you: Athena. Prior to the transition date, you will be sent a registration link to create a new patient account in Athena. If you have any immediate questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact your therapist, or call our office to speak to a staff member.