Advice for couples who are stuck in reactionary fighting. Sevin Philips, MFT offers skills to help create emotional safety, which is the first steps to being able to have meaningful conversations that lead to true healing.

Communication Tool: Time Outs

Communication Skills in a Relationship – Emotional Safety (video transcript)

Hello, my name is Sevin Philips. I’m a licensed marriage and family therapist and I’m here to talk about emotional safety in a relationship. Many relationships get stuck in fighting. It’s not uncommon.
But what happens for some is that no matter how hard they try to express themselves, it comes out in a fight. The smallest things can turn into bigger things. You can have this reactionary pattern where defensiveness, blaming, condescending, all these kind of characteristics come alive and you’re no longer having a conversation but you’re really fighting, and you’re hurting each other.

When you get in this pattern, it’s really hard to heal anything or have a real honest conversation. Fighting emotional safety is the first step to getting on the road to having a really good relationship and working your stuff out.

What I teach in couples counseling is called the time out. It’s the first step in this communication. What I do with people is I have them first agree that “Hey, we have to do this. We can’t do this fighting anymore. It has to stop.” When two people agree to do these time outs, that is really the only way it’s going to work.

How you start is you both sit down and really share with each other, “I’m going to call a time out when I feel you’re being defensive, condescending, yelling,” whatever it is the person does that doesn’t feel safe. Really tell the other person, give them a heads up, “These are the things that I’m going to call a time out on if they happen.”

The other thing is you have to decide “What’s a reasonable amount of time for us to wait?” When this time out is called is it a couple of hours? What is it? I recommend one or two hours, an hour maybe. You need some time to cool down. If something gets in the way of it, maybe before you go to sleep at night, but whatever it is you have to have some expectation about when the conversation is going to happen.

How time out works is a person in the moment calls it out, hopefully catches it before it goes too far in the fight and says, “Hey, I don’t feel safe. I want to call a time out and I will come back and talk about it.” It’s important to say it somewhat in that fashion because you can’t just run away. You can’t just say time out as you’re slamming the door. You really need to let the person know, “I’m calling a time out and I’m going to come back.” It’s very important information to help the person on the other end let you go.
The other thing is that you got to come back. It’s very important. The person is never going to trust you when you have these time outs if they don’t learn to trust that you will come back when you say you’ll come back.

On the other end, the person who is having to wait, I know it’s very difficult. Unfortunately, when someone calls a time out you don’t have any say in it. You can’t disagree with it. You have to respect it. It’s the only way it works.

I have a lot of compassion for how difficult it is, but I want to tell you something. It’s a really good skill to learn to tolerate difficult feelings. Tolerate them for at least a period of time instead of indulging in what ends up being a fight. It’s going to help your relationship and it’s going to get you on a better ground so that when you do come back, you’ll have a more productive conversation.
I hope that helps. Thanks, bye-bye.