10 Commandments of Time Outs in a Relationship

The best defense against verbal abuse is a formal time-out.

When either partner calls a time-out – by saying the words, “time-out,” by using the “T“ hand signal, or by using any agreed-upon sign – the interaction comes to an immediate stop. 

The spoken or gestured signal is understood by both partners to be an abbreviation of the following words:

“Dear partner. For whatever reason, right or wrong, I am about to lose it. If I stay here and keep this up with you I am liable to do or say something stupid that I know I’m going to regret. Therefore I am taking a break to get a grip on myself and calm down. I will check back in with you responsibly.”

The default interval for a time-out is 20 minutes. You can specify something else if you like. But if no time is specified, 20 minutes is when you need to check-in. 

Checking in does not necessarily mean getting back together. You can check in–either in person or by telephone–and tell your partner that you need more time. With each extension, the time-out interval gets longer. The recommended length between check-ins is:

  • Twenty minutes
  • One or two hours
  • Half a day
  • A whole day
  • Overnight

When reconnecting after a time-out, you must take a 24-hour moratorium on the subject that triggered the initial fight.

10 commandments of time outs in a relationship:-

1. Use time-outs as a circuit breaker

A time-out is a rip stop; it is the cord you pull to stop a runaway train, a brake, the thing you use to HALT an interaction that either has crossed over into or is quickly crossing over into, haywire. 

Time outs have one job and one job only – to stop abruptly a psychologically violent or unconstructive interaction between you and your partner.

2. Take your time out from the “I”

Calling for a time-out has everything to do with me and NOTHING to do with you. Calling for a time-out means that I don’t like how I am feeling, or what I am doing or about to do. Whether or not you think you have a problem with how you’re behaving or how “it’s” going between us is strictly your business.

3. Take distance responsibly

Time outs are obviously a form of distance taking, and like all forms of distance taking there are two ways to do it – provocatively or responsibly. 

Responsible distance taking has two pieces to it: 

  • An explanation
  • A promise of return

“This is why I am seeking distance and this is when I intend on coming back.” 

Provocative distance taking, by contrast, has neither – you just take the distance without any explanation or taking care of your partner’s anxieties about your leaving. I also speak of provocative distance-taking as incompetent distance-taking since it tends to get you chased.

4. Use the phrase (time out) or the gesture (the “T” sign) as an abbreviation.

I’ve often said that there are times when, if you open your mouth to speak, demons will fly out. You may not be able to control that. What is always under your control is the ability to turn your heel and leave.

The phrase “time out” or the T sign as a gesture are abbreviations for the following phrase:

“Honey, no matter how you may be feeling or assessing things, I don’t like how I’m doing and I don’t trust what I am about to do. So, I’m taking some time to regain my composure and I will be back to you when I do.”

5. Don’t let yourself get stopped

Timeouts are unilateral. They are your last-ditch effort to avoid immature words or actions. Unlike virtually every other Couple’s tool, time outs a non-negotiable declaration – “I’m leaving.” 

You’re not asking permission and you cannot allow yourself to be stopped. Don’t call a time-out and stand there to keep talking! Leave. Leave the room and go into another–a bedroom for example–and close the door.

If your partner won’t leave you alone, then leave the house – with or without the kids, your call. Go down the block for a cup of coffee. 

If your partner physically blocks you from leaving call the police, have them come to assist you. I have rarely met a couple where the police had to be called more than once.

6. Use check-ins at prescribed intervals

Since you’re not using a time-out to punish your partner but rather to calm things down, it is critical that you check in with your partner from time to time in order to take the emotional temperature between you.
The intervals I suggest are: 

  • an hour
  • three hours
  • a half day
  • a whole day
  • an overnight

Check-ins can be done in person although cooler media might be advised. You can check in by phone or even by texting.

7. Remember your goal

Time outs are about one thing–stopping in its tracks emotionally violent, immature, destructive behavior. Stopping such behavior in your relationship is a goal that supersedes all other goals. 

You may need to work on better communication, more sharing, or negotiation, but none of that will happen until you succeed in wrestling the beast of nasty transactions to the ground. 

Whatever point you want to make, whatever the content of the issue, nothing matters more than ending these sorts of transactions – so keep your priorities straight – nothing takes precedence over a time out.

8. Return in good faith

When are you ready to end a time-out? When you and your partner are both reseated enough in your adult selves to have a positive interaction again. That means you too. Don’t return with a grudge or a chip on your shoulder, you’ll just start up again. Come back when you are truly ready to make peace.

9. Use a twenty-four-hour moratorium on triggering topics

A mistake a lot of couples make when they re-engage is to try to “process” what just happened. Bad idea. When you come back from a time out just make nice to each other. Give your partner a hug and a cup of tea. Do NOT try to sort through whatever the topic was that triggered the time out for twenty-four hours.

10. Know when to get help and use it.

If you find that a certain topic–kids, sex, money–ALWAYS triggers a nasty transaction, take that as a signal that you need some outside support in order to have that conversation constructively. 

Go to a minister or a mental health professional for help. If you find that heated, unhelpful transactions occur with enough regularity that you are frequently resorting to time-outs, take that as a signal that you and your partner need some ongoing couple’s work.

Sign up for our email newsletter.

Enter your details to receive the latest news from Terry straight to your inbox. You’re about to access: