When couples are in a state of emotionally heightened conflict, they cannot access the part of their brain (the frontal lobe) that can communicate effectively and problem solve. A healthy conflict management tool is calling a time-out.

This time-out tool helps couples be able to choose to respond, as opposed to react habitually and automatically, and this determines whether the outcome of conflict is constructive or destructive. Being aggressive and combative in conflict (or using avoidance tactics) is a lose-lose situation for a couple and causes deep disconnection.

How does emotionally heightened conflict impact our brains?

  • Our brains have a “threat detector” (the amygdala), which has the capacity to make the rational/logical part of our brain (the prefrontal cortex) go “offline” and send us into “fight, flight or freeze” mode.
  • When we are in “fight, flight or freeze” mode, we have very little ability to think and speak rationally.
  • The result is typically destructive communication that can damage our relationships. This is the place where couples say hurtful things they don’t mean.

What are couple time-outs and how do they help?

  • Time-outs can prevent couples (or bring them back) from going into “fight, flight or freeze” mode, which means couples are able to access their rational/logical brain.
  • Time-outs greatly increases the experience of effective communication, empathy, validation and understanding.
  • Time-outs reduce defensiveness.
  • Time-outs increase emotional regulation skills.
  • Couple time-outs are not used as a weapon or to avoid conflict/brush it under the rug.
  • Couple time-outs are a sign of respect and protection for your relationship.

What do couple time-outs look like?

  • Aim to take a time-out ideally before one or both of you have gone into “fight or flight” mode. This means calling a time-out when you’re feeling emotionally heightened (e.g., irritated, annoyed, frustrated, angry etc.).
Step 1:
    • One of you says something like “For the good of our relationship, can we please take a time-out?” or “I am feeling really overwhelmed and I need a break.”
    Step 2:
    • Decide together the length of time of the time-out (generally the deeper into “fight or flight”, the longer the time-out)
    • A time-out/break should be at least 30 minutes and no more than 24 hours.
    • Reviewing a rough timeline, helps things not be avoided and helps your partner not feel abandoned.
      Step 3:
      • Tell each other where you’ll be during the time-out. Leave silently: no stomping, no door slamming etc.
      Step 4:
      • It is important that during the time-out you do self-soothing to tap back into your calm and rational brain.
          • Practice using self-talk to regulate your emotions.
          • Discharge the tension by doing something physical (e.g., go for a walk or run).
          • Distract yourself with something positive (e.g., a YouTube video, music, sunshine).
      • Do not: Ruminate about the conflict topic or strengthening “your side” of the argument as this does not regulate your nervous system. Do not Consume alcohol or drugs.
      Step 5:
      • When you feel regulated and the time frame is up, come back together with the intention to hear each other as well as validate each other’s feelings and perspectives. Speak calmly and from “I statements.” You may also choose to:
          • Put it on hold: if you both agree to postpone, choose a specific day/time to resume the discussion.
          • Drop it: it is really that important for the relationship?

      Written by: Hadley Mitchell, R. Psych
      Map Psychology Solutions
      [email protected]
      (587) 330-2999

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