In one of our group sessions, we were discussing taking a time-out during conflict. One participant said she heard this anger management technique is controversial. According to an article she read, time-outs were ineffective, could make matters worse, or be used as another form of abuse. For those of us who are working to stop hurting the ones we love, these are not good outcomes.

Time-outs can be ineffective, make things worse, or be abusive if they are misused.

Since this question comes up from time to time, it’s worth addressing. The article raises some valid points: time-outs can be ineffective, make things worse, or even be abusive if they are misused. Understanding when to call a time-out during conflict and what to do afterwards is valuable knowledge.

What is a Time-out During Conflict?

Before we get into that subject, let me say the time-outs we’re talking about here are different than time-outs one might use with misbehaving children. Those time-outs are controversial, and I’m not a parenting expert, so I won’t address that version. If you are a parent and you’re wondering, I’ll let you do your own research.

A time-out during conflict is taking a break to create space and calm down. During a quarrel, it’s quite possible to feel overwhelmed with emotion and find it hard to think clearly. Sometimes our anger can get the best of us and we say or do things that we later regret.

During a quarrel, it’s quite possible to feel overwhelmed with emotion and find it hard to think clearly.

As that’s happening, we seldom see our part of the problem and tend to hyper-focus on our partner’s faults. Real listening and heart-to-heart communication—needed to resolve a dispute—are impossible. Staying engaged in the argument in this heightened state of emotions only makes things worse.

The time-out technique gives us a break from emotional flooding and allows us to access more rational parts of our brain. It permits the adrenaline to drain from our bloodstream and gives us time for constructive thoughts. From there, we’re better able to talk, listen, and resolve the disagreement. Time-outs can be a very effective anger management strategy.

Actually Taking a Time-out During Conflict

One of the biggest challenges related to time-outs is actually taking them. It’s pretty easy to get sucked into a squabble and just keep going. The longer we go, the more difficult it is for us to stop our ugly words or damaging behavior.

The best way to avoid getting so emotionally hooked is to call time-out early. Practice associating “getting upset” with calling a time-out—like associating getting hot with removing your jacket. Unlike most sports, there is no limit on how many time-outs we get, so use them early and as often as necessary.

Guidelines, for a Reason

On the Ananias Foundation’s Time-outs webpage, we list nine guidelines for using a time-out during conflict. We say, and it’s worth repeating, “All the steps in this plan are important and are included in the list for a reason. Skipping one or several of the steps could cause the technique to not work, or not work as well as it should.”

Several of these rules simply make it easier for our partners to understand and accept us using a time-out during conflict. Once informed, calling a time-out does not catch them by surprise or increase their anxiety—a big reason why time-outs might be ineffective. When we make it easier for our significant other, we make it easier for ourselves.

When we make it easier for our significant other, we make it easier for ourselves.

Stepping away mid-argument can feel to our mates like abandonment, or that their voice doesn’t matter, or that nothing will get resolved. This is why discussing the time-out plan in advance is important. Setting a return time and reassuring them you want to talk about your differences should help calm their fears.

Time-out or Stonewalling?

A well-executed time-out during conflict is different than just walking away. Removing yourself from the disagreement might stop the fight from escalating into dangerous territory. But we have to return when promised and work cooperatively to solve the dispute or we make resolving the battle harder.

Time-outs are designed to be long enough for us to get back into a constructive state of mind. If they’re misused to avoid conflict altogether, then they become damaging. Dodging important issues in our relationships is called stonewalling.

Thinking Constructively During a Time-out

One failure I hear about (and I’ve done it myself) is not thinking constructively during our time-out. Stewing about how I was wronged and focusing on what my partner did can make me even more upset. Then, I’m in no better place to solve the problem than when I left.

Stewing about how I was wronged and focusing on what my partner did can make me even more upset and in no better place to solve the problem than when I left.

Instead, I try to identify the emotions I’m feeling and dig deeper into the thoughts behind those feelings. Often I see that I have used some form of distorted thinking. I’m upset about something that isn’t really important or threatening.

As hard as it may be, try to remember what you like and love about your mate during the time-out. Everyone’s partner is a fallible, imperfect human being. Like you and me, they’re likely to behave in some challenging ways when feeling hurt or scared. When we remind ourselves of this, we are more likely to see our other half with empathy instead of contempt.

Planning Our Return

One technique that works well for me is to visualize how our quarrel will get resolved. That usually means I’m going to listen and try to hear the message behind the message. What is the deeper issue causing my wife’s emotions, like her need for security or desire to know she’s important to me? Then I think about how I can reassure her of those things.

Consider ways to make your points gently.

As for my complaint, I try to consider ways I can make my points gently, if I still need to say anything at all. How would I have the same talk to a total stranger or a close friend? Also, what have I already said or done that I need to apologize for? A good, sincere apology can build goodwill and start the conversation in a positive direction.

A time-out is a fantastic tool for keeping an argument from escalating into damaging territory. Like any device, we have to know how to use it properly or it can end up doing more harm than good. When used well, taking a time-out during conflict is an effective way to manage our anger and safeguard our relationships.

For more on time-outs, watch this video on our YouTube channel.