Make Better Use of Time with Timeouts

Football season is in full swing and, even though rooting for DC dooms me to disappointment every year, it is one of my favorite sports to watch. Effective football strategy often reveals intrapsychic and interpersonal insight which is just as applicable off the field.

One of the best examples of this insight is in the strategic use of timeouts. Deciding when and why to call a timeout in football can be a daunting prospect for the inexperienced: it requires a depth of accrued knowledge, as well as keen perception in the moment. In general, however, timeouts are called to achieve one or more of the following three objectives:

  1. To mess with the other team’s performance by interrupting their momentum
  2. To manage the clock, i.e. to save time or waste time at the end of the game
  3. To allow coaches and players to rest, regroup, and/or adjust their strategy

Timeouts—minus the whistle—are also one of the most common strategies I offer couples in therapy who are stuck in painful and damaging conflict cycles. Calling a timeout in the context of an intimate relationship achieves roughly the same objectives as calling a timeout in football:

  1. To prevent conflict escalation—and any accompanying hostile words and behaviors—by interrupting the momentum of painful emotions and mutual reactivity
  2. To manage the temporal boundaries of a difficult conversation: e.g. when to have it, how long to allow for it, and how to negotiate those conditions fairly when partners have opposing preferences
  3. To allow both partners time and space in a safe, calm context to rest, regroup, and make intentional and constructive choices about how to respond to one another

Some partners, usually one in every relationship, love the idea of yelling “timeout!” during a heated exchange and then charging out of the room. This does not make for a good timeout, however, because it leaves the other partner feeling ignored or even abandoned and increases disconnection in the relationship. Conversely, in order to be both ethical and effective, a relationship timeout must include a clear and specific time limit—at which point the partner who called the timeout reinitiates the conversation.

Calling a timeout well sounds like “I need a 10-minute timeout, I will come find you then.” This phrasing communicates personal responsibility, makes a clear request for space, and sets a specific time limit—thus reassuring the other partner that the conversation and the relationship are important. Calling a timeout poorly might sound like “you are being unreasonable, I am leaving,” which fails to communicate personal responsibility; or “I just can’t talk about this anymore, it is too hard,” which fails to communicate the need for space; or “I need a timeout, bye,” which is a little better, but still fails to set a specific time limit—leaving the other partner alone and uncertain, and possibly unwilling to grant the request for a timeout.

The length of timeouts in football are determined by the league, and everyone involved goes into the game knowing exactly how many seconds they will have during every timeout before they need to be back on the field ready to play. In relationships, however, the structure of timeouts is fluid and varies based on the intensity of the precipitating conflict. Knowing in the moment how much time and space one needs to calm down and approach the disagreement constructively is a difficult skill to develop, and it requires consistent practice to achieve optimal results.

When the precipitating conflict is only mildly triggering, or if it is called early—prior to any serious escalation—a timeout may only consist of five minutes of silence with partners remaining in the same room; in a more triggering conflict that has escalated further, the timeout might be 10-20 minutes in separate room; in highly triggering conflicts or after serious escalation, an appropriate timeout could be 30 minutes or more, with one or both partners exiting the home for all or part of it.

Just as in football, knowing when to call a timeout during an interaction with an intimate partner can be daunting and difficult for those who are new to it. In this area, anger can be an extremely useful emotion—not as driver, but as a signal to change course. Anger is one of the most noticeable emotions we have, and it is almost always a sign that we need a timeout.

Anger has diverse physiological symptoms: muscle tension, jaw or fists clenching, headache, increased heartrate, tightness in the chest, gastrointestinal discomfort, feeling hot or flushed, etc. Anger also has noticeable behavioral symptoms: talking faster and/or louder, interrupting or talking over, using a more aggressive tone, avoiding eye contact, moving more abruptly, etc. By identifying their unique physical and behavioral symptoms of anger, partners can become more aware of their anger in the moment—and make a more conscious, constructive choice about what to do with it.

Think of anger during in intimate partner interaction as an alarm going off: a loud and powerful message that cannot be ignored, that compels action. A timeout is a constructive, active response to anger that avoids the destructive externalizing behaviors that we often associate with it: e.g. yelling, slamming doors, hurling insults and accusations, etc.

One common question I hear about timeouts is “what if it is already late and we are too tired to resolve the conflict after the timeout?” In these cases, the partner who called the timeout should still initiate an interaction with the other partner, even if is just to say, “that was a hard conversation—I am sorry I hurt you” and then hug or make some gesture of unity. If both partners are willing to acknowledge and apologize for the emotional pain caused by the conversation without defensiveness, this reconciliation can be accomplished in five minutes or less. Then, they should schedule a time within 24 hours to return to the conversation and discuss the practical problem in a calm and constructive manner.

I’d like to end here with a really clever sports metaphor, but I’m just going to punt it.

Janine Joly-DeMars provides couple, family, and individual therapy in our downtown Bethesda office. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation with Janine.

Phone: MD: 240-752-7650
4905 Del Ray Avenue, Suite 301
Bethesda, MD 20814