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Time-Outs Taught Me How to Handle Conflict

Don’t let an inability to fight strain your relationship.
conflict resolution relationships communication debate arguments time out marriage John Gottman

Photo Credit: Manchik Photography

My wife and I were terrible at conflict resolution when we were first married.

We didn’t have many fights, but when we did, it did not go well. My wife would see that I was upset, ask me why, and I would claim not to be upset. I would give her the silent treatment, usually for three days, until I forgot why I was upset in the first place and moved on.

I got married at age 40 and had never seen a conflict resolved through quiet conversation in my whole life. My family’s motto when I was growing up was, “Get over it.” When I got married, I didn’t know it was possible to calmly talk through a problem. I had never seen it done.

After reading the book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail by John Gottman, my wife and I went from terrible to excellent at conflict resolution in one day, thanks to Gottman’s research on the importance of taking time to calm down. Instead of awkwardly fumbling through conflicts, we now have a system that helps us take some time while still working through the issue together. Here are the three most important things I learned about being a pro at conflict resolution in your marriage.

01. Is Silence Golden?

When my wife and I were having a conflict, my response was the silent treatment. My wife so hated the silent treatment that she would ramp up her efforts to get me to talk. Unfortunately, her increasingly frantic efforts to break the silence only made me more agitated and less likely to talk.

Researchers have discovered that when a person gets angry, blood is shifted away from the thinking portion of the brain and toward the physical arousal system of the body. This physiological reaction leaves the person with three options: physically lashing out (not good), verbally lashing out (also not good), or keeping quiet (the best available option).

Speaking reasonably when angry is not possible for most people. Simply put, our ability to reason is diminished when we are angry, and if we try to talk when we are angry, we are likely to do damage to the relationship.

What’s more, on average men’s blood pressure is much more volatile than women’s. Researchers have discovered that men’s heart rate/blood pressure tends to spike much more quickly than women’s. For couples, this means that taking time to cool off before discussing a problem is really important.

It turns out that when angry, silence can indeed be golden. This is not the same as the silent treatment. In my defense, when I gave my wife the silent treatment, it was not because I wanted to hurt her emotionally, but rather it was out of a desire to protect her from the crazy thoughts inside my head. But my wife did not know that and felt emotionally assaulted by my lack of response. Further, she feared we would never get around to discussing the issue.

Gottman has found that if one or both partners have elevated heart rates, it’s better to call a time-out than slip into the silent treatment or force a conversation. Many people believe that two adults should always be able to talk out problems in the moment, but according to Gottman’s research, this is just not true. He concluded that 94 percent of couples need to learn to call time-outs. Which brings me to my second point.

02. Talk Later . . . or Time-Out?

My wife had good reason to put pressure on me to address the issue because I had never voluntarily communicated when a dispute arose between us. Often, seeing that pressure didn’t work, my wife would finally give up by eliciting from me a promise to talk later. I always agreed to talk later.

The problem is that we did not agree on the definition of later. For my wife, later means fifteen minutes from now. For me, later means after we’re dead.

What helped us become excellent at communicating is the simple idea of scheduling a conversation by calling a time-out. It’s important to have a clearly understood signal so that you both understand a time-out has been called. For us, it is my wife pointing at her watch and giving me a funny look. We laugh, and immediately we can feel the tension between us dissipate.

Agreeing to a time-out is different than agreeing to talk later. The main difference is that both sides understand just exactly how long a time-out should last. In our marriage, it is three hours. If an issue flares up at 12:36 p.m. on a Saturday, we agree to talk about it at 3:36 p.m. If that isn’t possible, we agree on a specific time soon thereafter (it could be the next day). We have three-hour time-outs in our marriage because it takes me one hour to complete each of the three important tasks of a time-out.

It takes me one hour to calm down. After this first hour, my ability to reason is fully restored, and I am able to get to the deeper issues involved. Most couples end up arguing at the surface level, and this is doomed to failure.

After the second hour of my time-out, I have my “aha” moment, where I finally understand the real issues involved. I am still not ready to talk, even though I have clarity.

The third hour of my time-out gives me a chance to come up with a creative win-win solution. Also, very importantly, this last hour of the time-out helps me find the right words to express myself.

Having an agreed time to talk helps us both relax. I feel safe being with my wife because I know she isn’t going to force me to talk about the issue until the agreed time. My wife can relax because she can see the light at the end of the tunnel. She doesn’t feel the need to keep pressuring me, and she isn’t worrying that we’ll never talk again.

For an excellent conversation, both partners need to be calm, thoughtful about the issues involved, and in a productive frame of mind. When we began the practice of scheduling our sensitive conversations, we became amazingly proficient at talking through the few difficult issues in our marriage.

03. A Time-Out from the Issue . . . Not the Relationship

Marriage is a two-way street. When a conflict arises, I need time to calm down and think, and my wife needs reassurance that she is still loved by me even though I am angry.

According to a study reported on in the New York Times, it’s not the silence or anger that is most damaging to women in conflict but the withdrawal of affection. The study found that even a gentle caress of the woman’s arm during conflict was so reassuring that the conflict was much less stressful for the woman.

So, the very first thing my wife and I do after a time-out is called is dance with each other. I may be completely angry and unable to talk in a reasonable way, but I can express affection to my wife, and I do. This way, during a time-out, my wife gives me time, and I give her affection, and we both are able to get through a heated moment without doing damage to our relationship.

A time-out, though, is about much more than avoiding doing damage to the relationship. The time-out is from the issue, not the relationship. We don’t leave the house or go into a different room. We can even talk with each other about other issues. Amazingly, we’ve even been able to enjoy each other’s company during conflict because we feel safe together. In fact, we have found that we’ve had some of the best conversations of our marriage after the time-outs we’ve called.

When we began the practice of scheduling our sensitive conversations, we became amazingly proficient at talking through the few difficult issues in our marriage. But that doesn’t mean fighting well still doesn’t take practice. I strongly recommend reading the book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail by Dr. Gottman. The book is filled with actual transcripts of couples’ conversations to learn from so that you, too, can become a pro at conflict resolution.