Call a Timeout


Michael Smalley shares his own experience with learning how to take an effective "time out" during conflicts with his wife, Amy.

Our research has shown that most women report feeling disconnected or rejected as their most common button pushed in an argument. Men reported their biggest buttons as feeling controlled or like a failure when in an argument. Buttons are important to understand because they are the foundation of why you get upset.

We do not get upset because the trash wasn’t taken out. We get upset because when the trash was not taken out our button of being ignored or invalidated got pushed. The first rule in healthy conflict resolution is to not talk or engage when your buttons first get pushed. Can you tell when your buttons get pushed and you are feeling negative or threatened? If so, then use those negative feelings (i.e. hurt, discouraged, controlled, failure, rejected, ignored, etc.) as a reminder to call a time-out.

In their groundbreaking, 25-year longitudinal study, Drs. Howard Markman and Scott Stanley discovered that couples really only divorce for 4 reasons:

  1. Someone escalates when conflict occurs
  2. Someone avoids when conflict occurs
  3. Someone belittles or dishonors when conflict occurs
  4. Someone develops negative beliefs as a result of conflict

Always remember that conflict is not the problem in unhealthy marriages—the four reasons listed above are the problem. How you respond to your buttons getting pushed is the problem. If you respond with any of those four things, then you are headed for divorce. If you respond with a timeout, then you are at least giving your marriage a chance to be happy and satisfied.

Amy and I learned this lesson all too well on our honeymoon. I am the son of a world famous marriage and family expert (Dr. Gary Smalley) who has literally sold millions of books and videos on how to get along. So if anyone should have been ready for a healthy and vibrant marriage, it should have been me. At least that was what everyone was telling me, and I totally bought in to the idea. I bought in to the idea so well that Amy and I did not get premarital education before our wedding! We were young and cocky and our lack of education nearly cost us our marriage and it destroyed our honeymoon.

Embrace goes into our story in a really crazy way, but I will at least mention here in the post that we ended our honeymoon early because of too much conflict. My feelings got hurt. Amy’s feelings got hurt. We did not know what to do about our constant fighting.

I need to pause here for a moment, because truthfully, Amy did try to tell me we should wait to discuss our conflict until we got home from the honeymoon, but I would not listen. I didn’t know any better. I wanted so desperately to resolve my hurt feelings, I was willing to destroy our honeymoon. You cannot resolve hurt feelings (or buttons getting pushed) when on vacation or when you first get upset. We all need a timeout in order to cool down and to be able and think rationally about the situation.

The first major rule of a timeout is to call one when you are upset. Simply say, “I’m upset and I need a break before I can talk about this. Can we talk in an hour?” Now I know what you are thinking, “Isn’t a timeout just a way to avoid?” No. Avoidance is when you simply walk away from the discussion never to talk about it again. A timeout is different because you have to set a "time in". It is not a timeout unless you have a time in. So before you walk away from each other, you’d better know the exact time you are going to walk back to each other.

Amy came up with a great little system that explains exactly what should happen during your timeout:

  • The first thing you do is let your spouse know that you need a timeout. (You might say something like, "I need a break," "I'm about to say something I don't mean," or "I don't feel like this is going to a good place."
  • Now you negotiate a time to come back together and LUV Talk (Listen, Understand, and Validate). ("I think I can talk in about 2 hours, is this okay with you?" "Can we talk about this in an hour?")
  • The point is to negotiate a time that is agreeable to both of you.
  • Take the break and leave each other alone. (During the break, make sure you are thinking about your part in the conflict. This is not a time to become more upset about your spouse. Try and think about how you could have handled the situation differently. For example things like your approach, tone of voice, non-verbals, defensiveness, or blaming.)
  • Before you come back together, ask yourself if you are ready to hear your spouse's side of the conflict. If you are not, then reschedule another meeting time.
  • If you are ready to listen, then you can officially begin LUV Talk. (You will know you are ready when you are willing to listen and validate your spouse.)

This is how you take an effective timeout.

There is only one more thing I want to tell you: Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever get into conflict during fun time. Date nights, vacations, family gatherings, school functions, etc. should all be sacred time and free from conflict. I know you will do things from time to time during fun activities that will bother each other—call a timeout. Do not try and resolve conflict during fun time. Just call a time-out and say to each other, “I’m hurt right now, but we are out on a date, so let’s talk about this when we get home.”

Don’t give me any excuses about this final point. We are not victims of our emotions. We can tell ourselves to have fun even when things do not go our way. The reason this last point is so important is because of the research of Dr. John Gottman. He found a 5-to-1 positive to negative experience ratio with couples who are happily married. If you protect fun time, then you can go for this 5-to-1 positive experience to every negative experience with each other. If you reach this ratio, you will be happily married.

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