How to stop arguments spinning out of control: using time outs

Couple having an argument

Have you noticed that arguments with your partner often blow up before getting resolved? Do disagreements easily pass the point of no return? Do you sometimes both say things you’ll regret later before one of you storms out? Are issues only ironed out after an apology?

Many couples bring this destructive pattern of conflict to counselling, and I’ve witnessed how hurt and exhausted they feel when they’re trapped in it. When you can’t have healthy, constructive and respectful arguments, problems can linger and resentment can creep in.

One strategy to tackle this dramatic pattern of conflict is to use time outs. These can trigger an immediate pause in the argument before you are tempted to cross that line, allowing physical and emotional space for you both to calm down. That way, when you’re together again you’ll be able to communicate more constructively rather than aim emotional darts at one another.

Using time outs

If you want to try using time outs, it’s helpful to explore the process when you’re not already in a conflict situation. You might like to sit down when you’re not feeling emotional and think about the following:

  • Choose how you would signal a time out. You might prefer a hand gesture, such as the familiar sporting ‘T’ or you could say the words verbally. Use the same method every time so that you start to establish a habit.
  • Agree that either partner can call time out. You can each take responsibility for the making the decision if it feels right – don’t ignore the signs and wait for your partner to see what’s happening. The time is right when you notice the risk of things spiralling out of control – that trigger point when symptoms of anger begin to arise and emotion is starting to override your ability to remain constructive.
  • If either of you calls time out, choose not to cross that line. Retreat by taking 15-20 minutes in separate rooms for quiet reflection.
  • Don’t use the space to wind yourselves up ready to return to battle. Once you do calm down, come back to the table ready to listen, empathise and share your viewpoints respectfully.

Does it always work?

Couples who successfully use time outs tell me they enjoy greater understanding of each other’s points of view and that it feels like they’re operating as a team. They’re able to avoid letting arguments spin out of control and end up saying things they really regret and causing damage to their relationship along the way.

However, it does require mutual commitment with both of you wanting to change how you resolve conflict. Every couple is different – it takes practice before you find your unique way to use time outs effectively. I can’t promise that you’ll never disagree or that things won’t get difficult on occasion, but you’ll start to realise that arguments can be less painful and that resolving problems doesn’t always mean you have to eat humble pie!

How we can help

  • If you’re finding it tricky, Relationship counselling can help you embed useful communication strategies into your relationship and improve how you manage your feelings.

    Book an appointment by calling 01908 310010

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