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Family Files

Time Out!

Man and woman shouting at each other.

“It’s your turn to take the kids to practice after school today,” she says to her husband.

“I can’t take the kids to practice today, I have a late meeting,” he says.

“That’s the second late meeting this week!” she shouts.

“Why are you raising your voice?” he asks as he points towards her.

“Why are you pointing at me?  You know it makes me crazy when you point at me!” she shouts.

“Crazy, you think my pointing is what makes you crazy? Ha!” he shouts in a smug tone.

Does any part of this couple’s conversation sound familiar to you? Most, if not all, of us have entered a neutral conversation about something as simple as taking the garbage out or where to eat dinner, and soon found ourselves in the middle of a very heated discussion (or should I say impassioned argument?).  The discussion begins in a civil manner, then someone crosses a line ever so slightly, causing the discussion to take on a life of its own. The tension may start with one partner raising their voice, then is amplified by the other partner’s reaction. Soon, there is no communication at all, only each partner’s reactions to the other’s preceding reactions. Before you know it, the argument (no longer a discussion at this point – it’s a full-blown argument) growing in intensity and scope has long lost its initial purpose. The momentum is forcing it down a destructive path, like a gigantic snowball picking up everything in its way, and may cause irreparable damage to the relationship.

What should a couple do when, or better yet, before they find themselves overcome by this gigantic snowball?  What does your favorite sports team do when they find themselves in need of revising their strategy, making a substitution, stopping the momentum of the opposing team, or perhaps just a cool drink?  Have you ever found yourself in the middle of a situation at work when you seemed to have lost your focus, needing a moment to calm down, or just needing to step away for a few minutes to gain perspective? What do parents call those well-thought-out, pre-planned moments when children are placed in a predetermined location for a specific amount of time as a form of mild punishment and compulsory contemplation of their actions?  Each of these is an example of the use of a Time Out! 

A Time Out can prove to be an invaluable resource in a relationship. Calling a Time Out could prevent both partners from making hurtful statements and bring the focus back to the purpose of the discussion.  In their book Fighting for Your Marriage, a team of marital researchers describe how couples who have healthy, happy relationships often have a pre-determined way of calling a Time Out before a heated discussion has become damaging to the relationship.  The researchers also explain that couples who do not find such a way to exit a fight to avoid further damage, do not do well over time.  

Think about it!  Consider the circumstances in each of the earlier situations (sports, work, childhood time out) where a Time Out was warranted.  What if the next time you find yourself engaged in a civil conversation with your partner that ends up steamrolling down a path of destruction, you call a Time Out and revise your strategy, stop the momentum, gain focus, calm down, think about what you have said, and maybe even get a cool drink?    

Planning an effective Time Out is one small, but important, piece of a healthy relationship.  If you and your partner would like to learn more about calling a Time Out and other ways to strengthen your relationship, please check out the Illinois Strong Couples project. This project led by University of Illinois Extension provides Illinois residents the opportunity to participate, for free, in one of the most scientifically-supported online relationship education programs. Learn more about how the Illinois Strong Couples program can benefit your relationship today!


Source:   Markman, Howard J., et al. Fighting for your Marriage. San FranciscoJossey-Bass, 2010.