Timeouts for adults – conflict resolution and avoidance strategies

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Quick summary: Timeouts are not just for children – adults should use them at times as well… the difference being that you should give yourself a timeout, and not your partner (if you tell your partner to go take a timeout you are likely in for a bit of conflict). There are many different things that affect our emotional disposition (our mood)… and there are some emotional states which are not best suited for certain interactions. It is helpful in a relationship if a partners can monitor their feelings and make the appropriate choice to take some space (a ‘timeout’) if they are sensing that they will not being able to engage an interaction with their partner in a constructive, honest or reasonable way. Often we present anger when we have not had the time to understand our emotions for ourselves… if you look back on some of your experiences of anger you will probably find that the underlying emotion (the emotion who truly desired to express) was a different feeling – sadness, embarrassment, confusion etc.

“Anger is a secondary emotion” – this is a phrase that I have heard many times in the therapeutic community. The phrase is meant to illustrate how anger almost always seems to be the result of a more primary emotion – which is usually sadness and fear. Many therapists hold that anger is a way of avoiding feelings like sadness – especially in a culture in which the expression of anger is considerably more visible than other forms of emotional expression.

Timeouts to not have the intention of giving you the time to avoid or to suppress your emotions – the timeout is for the person to get in touch with the way they are feeling before they try and express that feeling to a partner.

Taking a timeout can give you the time to understand how you are really feeling – think of the arguments that you have had in your life with a significant other that had nothing to with that person. (Your boss was asking irritating questions all day and you come home and argue with your partner when she asks you if you want Caesar or blue cheese dressing).

Stress, anxiety and the need to calm down before your engagement with your partner – work can ask you to function in a fashion that is ideal for completing your job, but not ideal for interacting with people in your home life. This is especially true for people in high stress jobs such the police – these jobs can require a hyper vigilance that necessitates quick decision-making skills that are not always as useful while at home. Take the time to settle down if you feel as though your engagement with someone in your household might lead to conflict.

  • Some people need a daily timeout (about 15 minutes) when they come home from work – this can be difficult for the partner at first, but once it becomes a habit it can be mutually beneficial. If those 15 minutes will enable you or your partner to interact positively, this can make all the difference.

Some therapists suggest that your first interaction with your partner will dictate your interaction patterns for the rest of that night. 

If you take a timeout you need to tell your partner when you will re-engage (be reasonable and empathetic) – take your walk, go on a run, go meditate, do your breathing exercises, get something to eat, or engage in a hobby, but let your partner know that when your stress reduction activity is done – you will be available. 

The partner must respect the timeout – and don’t ask for an explanation – the person might need the time out to ‘explain’ their feelings to themselves. It is a huge gigantic, enormous, step for many people to be able to reach a point where they can notice their emotions to be bit volatile and to ask for some space – huge. This is extremely hard for many people to do (instead of allowing their anger to govern their behavior). So it is very important that a partner reinforce this progress by kindly respecting the ‘timeout’ which has been asked for.

In a relationship you will have times when you have to have a difficult discussion – such as a conversation in which you know there is disagreement, or you know that a partner did something that saddened the other person. For these conversations to be more effective it is best to set a time when both partners will be most ready to engage. In this way you have a “timeout” until an agreed upon time – obviously that time needs to be reasonable “tomorrow at 6” is usually more reasonable then “in a couple weeks.” Be specific with the set time – at “5:30” or “in an hour” and not “later”.

Adults will sometimes need a timeout in the middle of a disagreement – sometimes you and your partner will start the interaction and it will not go well – you notice explosive anger and your heart feels like it is going to beat out of your chest – take a timeout, tell your partner that you need to walk around the block and cool down for a minute. In such an example it is best that you do an activity that you know will reduce your stress level. 

Sometimes the timeout is the solutions – At times partners will find that there actually was not a conflict pertaining to the two people in the relationship (bad day at work, low blood sugar, worried about a friend etc) and the timeout illuminates the fact that everything is just fine. In these cases, often an explanation or an apology is a nice idea – “sorry I was such a grouch at the movie store… I really needed to eat something.”

Timeouts can help you to avoid instances in which your emotions dictate your behaviors – and avoiding this cycle can help you to better understand your emotions. It is perhaps harder to notice your emotions if you are automatically reacting to them – often your reactions can confuse your ability to understand the depth of that primary emotion.

 

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.
William Hambleton Bishop
William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

67 thoughts on “Timeouts for adults – conflict resolution and avoidance strategies

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