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Helpful Time-outs

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 entering jackal land, 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, it's important to reflect on the situation in a way that creates clarity and connection. Below is a series of steps to support you in having helpful timeouts.

Time-out Reflection Steps

1. Name your jackals.

2. Distinguish what actually happened from what you made it mean.  That is, make a clear observation.

3. Name your feelings and needs.

4. Guess your partner's feelings and needs.

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'm 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!" 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.

Chris uses the time-out steps to reflect on the experience:

1. My jackals are saying: 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". What did I make that mean? She doesn't care about me. She doesn't understand what I need.

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 jackals are saying: 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 jackal. I feel angry and disrespected. Oh, that is still jackal. Disrespected isn't a feeling, it's my interpretation of what I think she was doing. Underneath that I feel hurt and frustrated 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 Chris 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: Is there something I could do to help meet your need for peace now?

Chris: Having quiet time together really helps. No TV, no laptop, no cell phones.

Mercedes: Okay let's set aside a couple of nights this week for quiet time.

Chris: Thanks, that would be great. What about your need for acceptance, how can I help you meet that?

Mercedes: Just letting me know what you appreciate. It really helps to hear when you are enjoying me or something I am doing.

Chris: Okay, I can do more of that. I will make it a point to share at least two appreciations with you each day for the next week.

It would be easy here for either Chris or Mercedes to jump to a request around the next time they are in the car together. Something like: "Next time tell me you are anxious before telling me where to turn." While this would likely be helpful it may or may not be do-able and it doesn't address the needs in the moment. Effective requests arise directly out of the needs in the moment.

This week write these steps down on a wallet size card. Carry them with you and pull them out when you experience a conflict.

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1 Response

  1. Jul 15, 2010
    Tam An Tran


    This is a practical question only; it is not meant to belittle your words. I have reently experienced that 'time-out' could sometimes mean that the other person is the first to come to me and say something by way of an apology. This happened recently and although the situation did not escalate and did not continue in any way, I replied too quickly, in a way I thought was acknowleding the other person's attempt to apologize, yet I guess I wasn't ready for such an immediate response to my walking away with a few words - I do not remember exactly what they were.

    Has the above scenario really happened with you? I mean, how often is there such a positive response and one that isn't something like: 'That's your perspective" or 'Yes, but..." or 'Well, I just want to let you know I am sorry.' There always seems to be some comment to my comments when I apologize or when I try to explain how I felt. Perhaps I need to say nothing?
    Tam An

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