Take a Break Before You Break Something
November 27, 2012 by

My husband and I have decided not to buy Christmas gifts for one another in order to take on a house project. As with many couples, tensions rise during stressful projects. For us, most of the arguments occur during the planning process. We both have different opinions about which project to do and what that project should look like.

Our most recent discussion centered around replacing our front door, and by the middle of it all, both of us felt tired and a bit annoyed with the other. Bring on … the time out.  One of my most useful (and simple) tools as a clinician is the Time Out – a process in which couples take a break from the discussion in order to relax and regroup.

There is a persistent myth floating around that tells couples not to go to bed angry, not to let an argument fester – basically, that if you are upset, then you should hash it out until it is resolved.  Unfortunately, this myth is often very destructive and hurtful for relationships. It leads to saying things we later regret. It leads to yelling and name calling. It leads to shutting down and ignoring your partner. It leads to unhealthy solutions.

When you are in a heated discussion or tense conversation, your heart rate may increase, palms become sweaty, and muscles tense. You may tighten your shoulders, and your body will often release adrenaline when it senses stress. When these symptoms combine and become too intense, our bodies become “flooded”, which is an overwhelmed state that initiates the fight-or-flight response and prevents healthy problem-solving.


The solution: the Time Out – taking a break from the conversation to calm yourself and your body to a point when you can thinking rationally and productively again. Here is the point where many clients begin to suspect something. A time out? Isn’t that just delaying the issue? What if we never come back to the topic? Valid points.

Time outs should be used to take a brief break from the conversation with the intention to come back together once you have been able to bring yourself down from the tension-high. The time should not be used to re-hash the argument and think of ways to “win” the debate. Instead, the time should focus on something relaxing that will help you to problem solve when you begin the conversation again.

Also, be sure to let your partner know that you need a time out (and respect your partner when he or she asks for a time out). Many of us have a bad habit of walking away when we become overwhelmed in an argument, which leaves our partners feeling hurt, ignored, or angry. When you recognize that you are reaching a flooded state, let your partner know: “I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed and frustrated and I need a 15 minute break.”

For many of us, the time out feels a bit awkward and ingenuine. This feeling mainly occurs because we aren’t used to a time out, and therefore, it doesn’t feel natural. Try it out a few times and be gentle with yourself. It may not work as easily the first time, and that’s okay. Figure out the routine that works best for you and your partner, and try again.

Believe me, the reward will be worth it.


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2 Thoughts About Take a Break Before You Break Something

  • Fatimah
    December 1, 2012 at 7:56 pm Reply

    Agreed! It’s so important to start recognizing when you need that time-out before it’s too late!

  • Sophia
    December 3, 2012 at 9:31 am Reply

    Always great to get a reminder about this…I like that you mentioned the bad habit of walking away without saying anything.

    It’s funny how household projects can lead to arguments…been there 🙂

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