When you think of “time-out,” you probably either think about sporting events or envision a pouting kid sitting in the corner. Let’s think about that kid and the purpose for him being on a time-out. Chances are he did something he wasn’t supposed to do, and he’s being punished by having to leave the screen or other activity, and sit in a boring spot until his sentence has been served. But that’s not really how time-outs should work. Pediatricians often advise parents to give their three-year-old time-outs for three minutes, and kids who are five should have five-minute time-outs. This is a nice guideline based on child development but it often loses the purpose of the time-out and instead makes it a punishment sentence.

So, what is the purpose of time-outs? A time-out should ideally be to help the kid deescalate so he can return to what he was doing when he lost control, hurt someone, or broke a rule.

The interesting thing is that time-outs should not be reserved for kids. Adults should take time-outs too! Again, remember, the time-out is not a punishment, assignment of blame, or anything like that. Instead, it is an opportunity to self-soothe, calm down, and prevent the individual from doing something that he’ll have to apologize for later on.

Based on this, adults should take time-outs themselves (rather than being placed on time-out by someone else) when they feel their “emotional temperature rising,” and they anticipate possibly doing or saying something that will hurt someone, cause a mess, or necessitate some corrective action afterward such as an apology or patching a hole in a wall.

You might be wondering how this works. Here are some rules I suggest to my patients about taking time-outs:

  1. Ideally, you take a time-out yourself rather than suggesting to your partner that they take a time-out. Remember that when you take a time-out, your partner will be taking one too.
  2. Don’t abuse time-outs. Don’t call a time-out because you’re sick of hearing your partner’s perspective or when you just want to get out of an argument.
  3. Trust that your partner is following rule #2 and honor their desire/need to take a time-out now.
  4. Use the universal sign for time-out (hands forming a “T”) and use the words, “time-out.” Don’t say, “I’m done,” “I’m out of here,” “I’m not talking about this anymore,” or any other quasi-threatening/hard to really understand statement.
  5. Anticipate how long you expect you’ll need to sufficiently deescalate and announce that duration when calling a time-out. For example, “I need a time-out. Let’s pick this up again in a half-hour,” or “I’m calling a time-out. I’m really upset right now and I know we’re not listening to each other. Let’s talk about this tomorrow morning.”
  6. Have a time-in. A time-out without a time-in is avoidance. See rule #2. You need to actually restart the conversation, argument, debate, disagreement, etc., but this time in a more controlled manner. Otherwise, you’re just avoiding the issue and it’ll just be a matter of time before that exact issue resurfaces (often during the next argument).
  7. If you anticipated needing 30 minutes but you were able to cool down in 15 minutes, ask if your partner is ready then. If you anticipated you’d need 30 minutes but you’re not calm yet, simply extend the time-out: “I know I called the time-out for a half-hour, but I’m not ready yet. I think I need another half-hour.”
  8. It’s perfectly fine to have serial time-outs (and it’s surely better than having a premature time-in and then blowing up). If you’re calm and the two of you do a time-in restarting the conversation, and two minutes later you feel your face glowing red and steam coming out of your ears, call another time-out. Remember, the purpose of the time-out is to prevent damage from being done. It’s better to delay the resolution of the conversation than to inflict damage within the relationship.

Share this post with your partner, read it together and, when needed, give this a shot. I’m confident that with a little practice, you’ll find that the eventual outcome is way better following a needed time-out (and time-in) than forcefully barreling through a fight.

The universal sign for time-out