In a recent couples' workshop, a participant said, "After so many years together we have learned to take a time-out before we say things we regret, but when we come back together we're still angry. Nothing has changed."
If you and your partner are escalating into an argument, it can save a lot of hurt if one of you can call a time-out and disengage. This is even more useful if you have a standing agreement about calling time-outs and returning to check-in after a certain amount of time. Unfortunately just time away doesn't particularly change anything, as the workshop participant mentioned. For the time-out to be helpful, you have to make use of the time in a very specific way. Below is a series of steps to support you in using your timeouts in a way that helps you come back to dialogue in a new way.
Time-out Reflection Steps
1. Do something physical to shift your physiology such as: taking a walk, sitting still and focusing on 10 deep breaths, drinking or eating something.
2. Ask yourself: "What is the story I am telling myself right now? What am I interpreting from what happened? "What actually happened that triggered the reaction I am having now? (This means describing only what a video camera could record).
3. Name your feelings and needs
4. Guess your partner's feelings and needs. What feelings and needs might have been going on in her when she said or did whatever it was that triggered you?
5. Write down your feelings and needs and your guess about your partner's feelings and needs.
Let's look at these steps in an example. Chris and Mercedes are driving home from the movie. Chris says, "Turn left here." Mercedes responds, "No, I am just going to take this way home." Chris says, "Can't you just go the back way." Mercedes responds, "Can't I just go this way!" And the conversation escalates into a fight about Chris "being controlling" and Mercedes "being aggressive and defensive".
Chris and Mercedes angrily go their separate ways that night knowing they have plans to hang out the next day.
After taking some time to calm down physically by just laying on the floor and focusing on breathing, Chris uses the time-out steps to reflect on the experience:
1. My story is: Mercedes is aggressive and inconsiderate. She doesn't care what I need and just has to prove she is in control. She is always blowing up at me. She should think about someone besides herself.
2. What happened? I asked her to take the back way and she told me to "back off".
3. What are my feelings and needs? I am angry because I am still caught in my jackal show thinking about what she should and shouldn't have done. Let me take a few deep breaths and see if I can slow down my body and mind. What's underneath the anger? I am feeling hurt and frustrated because I need caring and understanding. When I asked her to make that turn I was feeling anxious and needed peace and I thought taking the back way would be more peaceful.
4. What might be Mercedes' feelings and needs? Maybe she was feeling embarrassed in front of our friend and wanted trust and acceptance.
Mercedes uses the time-out steps to reflect on the experience:
5. My story is: Chris just wants to control everything. She has got to have everything her way. She doesn't respect me when I drive.
6. What happened? Chris asked me to take the back way in three different ways. I told her to "back off". What did I make that mean? She doesn't trust me. She thinks I am incompetent. She's judging me.
7. What are my feelings and needs? Right now I am feeling resentful because I am thinking to myself that she should trust me. That's another story. I feel angry and disrespected. Oh, that is still story. Disrespected isn't a feeling, it's my interpretation of what I think she was doing. Underneath that I feel hurt and disappointed because I need acceptance and trust. In the car I was feeling scared and needing acceptance.
8. What might be Chris' feelings and needs? In asking me to take the other way, maybe she was feeling tired or sick and just wanted rest. Maybe she wanted to do something that involved going that way.
Let's say Chris is the one to start the conversation the next day. Chris might start by offering Mercedes empathy. (This is where it is important to have both people's feelings and needs written down).
Chris: I was thinking about last night. I am guessing maybe you were feeling embarrassed in front of our friend and just wanted acceptance and trust. Is that right?
Mercedes: (Let's pretend Mercedes didn't do the time-out steps) Yea, why do you always have to control everything!
(Here Chris is tempted to defend herself. If she does, they will be fighting again. Instead she sticks to feelings and needs).
Chris: You want trust for your driving and respect for your decisions?
Mercedes: Yea, why can't you trust me?!
(Here it might be easy for Chris to take the bait and slip into lawyer mode and convince Mercedes of how much she does trust her. Instead she sticks to feelings and needs).
Chris: It's really painful for you to imagine that I don't trust you?
(Mercedes softens and begins to cry. Chris sits silently allowing Mercedes to connect with her own feelings and needs. Mercedes looks up and with curiosity and pain asks a question).
Mercedes: Do you trust me?
Chris: When I asked you to make that turn there was nothing up for me about trusting you. What was up for me was a lot of anxiety and I needed some relief and peace. I thought taking the back way would help me calm down.
Mercedes: Oh, I didn't know you were feeling anxious.
Chris: I feel anxious a lot of the time.
Mercedes: I really want to be able to respond more compassionately to you than I did last night. The next time you feel anxious when we are doing something together would you be willing to tell me?
Creating mutual understanding about the situation doesn't mean it won't happen again. Knowing this Mercedes makes a request for the next time. Just focusing on the next time makes her request do-able and concrete.
Take a moment now to write these steps down on a wallet size card. Carry them with you and pull them out when you experience a conflict. Let your partner know in advance that you are going practice this. Agree on a length of time for a time-out. The length of doesn't have to be when you start the dialogue again. It can just be a time to check in and see if you both are ready.