Early in my relationship with my wife, I learned an invaluable tool that has saved me many a lonely night sleeping on the couch. But let me give you background first. I started my career as an attorney. Once I graduated law school. I had a very clear path set before me. I wanted to be a trial attorney and make big bucks. That plan took a hard left after I got married. My newly minted wife suggested that we read the book “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus,” by John Gray. It had just been published and was all the talk. Although I thought it was a silly idea, I figured I had to humor my new wife, for obvious reasons. (I’m not saying that my single-guy love-life wasn’t satisfying, but I had no desire to relive the dry spells associated with no woman in my life…or an unhappy woman, for that matter.)
That book changed the way I looked at relationships and would ultimately steer me on a career path that I never would have imagined in a million years. I had never thought about having to put effort into relationships. I guess I always thought that if it was meant to work out, it just would. My parents made their relationship, as well as parenting, look effortless. I guess I had just never given it much thought…until that book. What I discovered was that I was guilty of some pretty poor relationship tactics, such as stonewalling and defensiveness.
My wife and I began to share office space, me as a lawyer and her as a psychotherapist. She then asked me to help start a batterers intervention program for men accused of domestic violence with their partner. Since I knew all the judges and lawyers, I agreed to help her. She then asked me to co-facilitate the groups. Initially, I was reluctant…that was all that psychobabble stuff she learned in school! But she persisted, and for the same reasons I read the book, I agreed. I figured it would be easy. I would just teach all those jerks to be just like me! You know, because I was such a nice guy!
I went to the training to teach me how to teach the course and what struck me like a bolt of lightning was that I was doing some terribly destructive behaviors in my previous relationships…intimidation, emotional abuse, isolation, coercion and threats…and I had no idea! Turns out I wasn’t such a nice guy after all. This ignited a passion in me, to fix myself and to help men have healthy relationships.
That was over 27 years ago, and I know this; if it wasn’t for that book and that training, I would probably still be a lawyer and living in a large and very, very lonely home. Having been divorced in law school, I dreaded that fate again and became determined to make my relationship with my wife work.
Which leads me to the topic at hand. In our batterers intervention program, the very first, and perhaps most important skill we learn, is to take a Time Out when we get angry with our significant other. I think we can all agree that in the heat of an argument, we can say things we don’t mean and do things we regret later. The Time Out is a technique to avoid doing damage to our relationships.
So, let’s talk about relationships for a moment, and then we will get into the nitty-gritty of the Time Out. Modern relationships are hard work! In caveman days, relationships were easy…day-to-day survival was another story. Today, in part because we live so much longer, there is pressure to be monogamous, life is so much more complicated, and there are few of the traditional stereotypical gender roles in relationships any longer, the opposite is true. Survival is easy, relationships are hard! Remember the old Captain and Tenille song, “Love Will Keep Us Together”?….no it won’t. Love simply isn’t enough.
This fact makes it all the more important to approach our relationships with the utmost of caution and devotion, as if the relationship is the most sacred aspect of our life (and having been married over 27 years, I promise you this, in terms of your happiness, it is the most sacred thing in your life). So, if you go forward with purpose and some knowledge, you can have lasting love and happiness.
Men generally have two complaints about women: too much fighting and not enough sex. When a woman is mad, upset or feeling like you don’t hear, understand or care about her feelings or problems, she will not have sex with you. We teach men that if they master the Time Out, they will see a decrease in conflict and an increase in sex.
The Time Out
When we first meet our love interest, we enter the infatuation stage of the relationship. In that stage, we feel we have met our soulmate…the one who completes us. We are on our best behavior, and we are blinded by our intense emotions to the red flags in the other person’s character. Our bodies release a chemical cocktail every time we see that person, talk to that person, or think about that person… phenylethylamine (PEA), dopamine, oxytocin, vasopressin, endorphins. And then add to that, adrenalin, and we have a tireless amount of energy directed solely towards the pursuit of that love interest. Nature made us that way to ensure the continuation of the species. (If you think about it, Mother Nature is preoccupied with sex in all species!). It’s a beautiful thing! But like all drugs, these chemical cocktails wear off over time, and we begin to se those things in our partners that annoy us…or downright infuriate us.
So, in spite of how much we love that other person, there will be conflict! And this is where relationships can thrive or fail, in how we handle conflict. Although we think us modern homo sapiens are advanced, the caveman part of our brain is very much alive…and necessarily so! In cave man days, when our early ancestors found themselves in danger, say from a saber-toothed tiger, our brain (the amygdala) registered that information which signaled the body to release a cascade of hormones, including adrenaline, to prepare for fight or flight. In a relationship, a man simply cannot distinguish between an actual spear being thrown at him or a verbal spear…and both will send the male into fight or flight.
The effect of these hormones include shunting blood away from your organs to your extremities, increasing your heart rate, dilating your pupils, causing a loss of peripheral vision (allowing you to become very focused visually on the threat), loss of the ability to hear, and a shutting down of the prefrontal cortex of the brain (where empathy, sympathy, reason, future planning, and moderating social behavior live). This response is known as Diffuse Physiological Arousal (DPA), and it was, and still is, essential for our survival. Think about encountering a bear while hiking. DPA can save your life (unless you decide to fight the bear rather than flee!)
However, sometimes when we get into a fight or argument in our relationship, that same part of brain can take over and send us into DPA. Men are much more quickly likely to end up in DPA than women, and it is simply impossible to process communication in this state. John Gottman (who I like to call the Godfather of relationships) calls this phenomenon “flooding”. And because DPA causes us to view the threat as an enemy, and because the prefrontal cortex is shut down, we say and do things that are destructive to the relationship. We cannot be good listeners and problem solvers in this state. This is where the Time Out comes in.
A Time Out consists of four basic steps:
Step 1: Recognize your anger cues.
In this step, we want to recognize that accelerated heart rate, the sweaty palms, the place in your body you begin to feel the adrenaline. As soon as you begin to recognize your cues (different people will notice different cues), you immediately move on to step two.
Step 2: Call “Time Out”.
Historically speaking, women hate time outs…why? Because men get angry, say or do ugly things and then just walk out, slamming the door behind them. The woman has no clue where he is going or when he will be back…or how he will act when he comes back. For her, it often feels like a refusal to deal with problems in the relationship, and as a punishment for bringing up the things that bother her, making her less likely to bring up such matters in the future (which just breeds resentment on her part…and resentment kills relationships). So, we teach men to actually use the words “Time Out”…that way, she knows exactly what he is doing. It should noted at this point, there has been no yelling, screaming, name calling, throwing things, etc. The very first time I called “Time Out” with my wife she said “I didn’t know you were getting angry”….which is exactly how it should go. (I’m a jerk sometimes when I get angry. I don’t want her to see that.) Step two is followed immediately by step three.
Step 3: Tell her where you are going and how long you will be gone.
We teach the men that they must tell her how long they will be gone and where they are going. Studies show that it takes at least 20 minutes for a person’s heart rate to decrease to pre-DPA levels. A time out should be from approximately 20 minutes to one hour. (I have found over the years that generally, as the relationship progresses, time outs become shorter in duration as both partners begin to have confidence in the process and in the relationship itself, and the number of time outs decrease, as well.)
There are some rules to follow during the time out, though: No drinking or drugging while on a time out. We teach men to use “positive self-talk”. Most of the great thinkers, philosophers, religious leaders, and self-help gurus teach us to be careful what we think about, for wherever you put your thought-focus, that is what will be true for you. When taking a time out, we teach men to think about the problem and try to come up with positive solutions to the problem, to remind themselves that they love their partner, and to not focus on their anger and what about their partner that makes them angry. We encourage guys to find a mantra, of sorts. When I find myself getting annoyed with my wife, my mantra is “Life is short, I don’t have five minutes to waste fighting with this woman. What do I need to do or say to fix this problem?”
It is essential that you return when you say you will return. Part of what makes a woman feel safe is to do what you say you are going to do. (This is part of trust) It also gives her some confidence in the process of a Time Out. If you are still angry at the end of your time out, let her know you need more time.
Step 4: Be willing to talk about the problem or issue and respect your partner’s decision to talk or not.
Earlier, we learned that men want less fighting and more sex. Women, on the other hand, complain that 1) he is never there for me, and 2) there isn’t enough intimacy and connection. Part of “being there for her” is to listen (nonjudgmentally) and understand her. And she will only feel intimacy if she feels understood and valued. We can see that what men want and what women want are two sides of the same coin. And resentment, which comes from not being heard and valued, will kill the love between two people.
When I ask people what they fought about, many times the couple cannot remember and then inevitably say “something stupid”. Many times, conflict begins over something stupid and escalates from there. Often, couples end up fighting over what was said or done during the fight…they are literally fighting over fighting…and the original issue was never addressed or long-forgotten. What I have discovered is that often, after a proper time out, the “problem” disappears…it was something stupid, anyway.
We all know that relationships begin with such hope and promise…a feeling that this love will never go away. But so often, relationships fail. In both successful and unsuccessful relationships there is conflict…it is inevitable. But one of the single most important determining factors in the success of the relationship is not if the couple fights, but how the couple fights. The Time Out is a tool that helps couples cool down and rationally resolve conflict.
(Note: this was written primarily for men, but it is a useful tool for therapists to share with their clients, and for relationship partners to share with one another before the relationship goes south. To learn more about domestic violence, look at our comprehensive online courses)