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The Art of the Adult Timeout

I know what you’re probably thinking: that timeouts are for children who are throwing a tantrum. But believe it or not, the premise of taking a timeout can be useful for us adults too. This is a skill I usually teach couples, but it can apply to many other relationships and situations as well.

Reason for a Timeout

We have probably all been in a conversation where we can feel ourselves getting angrier and angrier. We may feel our face getting flushed and our muscles tight. And before we know it, without thinking, we say something that we normally would never say and wish we could take back. What’s happening here is that you have switched over from using your rational brain to your emotional brain. This is a normal human reaction when we are feeling attacked or like we need to protect ourselves. What if there was a way you could keep yourself from getting to this point so that you didn’t say or do something you didn’t mean to your partner? This is where taking a good timeout can help!

What to Pay Attention To

The first step in learning how to take a timeout is to pay attention to the warning signs that you are getting to the point of no return. What happens for you physically when you start to get angry or overwhelmed? Some people describe feeling it in their head, stomach, or muscles. Where is it for you? Many people also say they can tell they need to take a timeout when they are no longer hearing anything their partner is saying because they are stuck in their head thinking of a response. Once you have identified your warning signs, you can recognize when it is time to call a timeout.

Calling a Timeout

For couples specifically, each partner must agree that if one of them calls a timeout during a disagreement, the other partner must acknowledge and honor this and take a timeout as well. Couples have various ways they agree to call timeouts: some will come up with a code word or hand gesture they use that alerts the other they are calling a timeout; some just simply say “I need a timeout”. Whatever works best for you!

Taking an Effective Timeout

There are a few things that are key to taking an effective, productive timeout:

  1. Dr. John Gottman suggests that adults need at least 20 minutes to get back into their rational brain. Timeouts should last at least this long so that you and your partner can return to the conversation clear-headed. Try to avoid waiting more than 24 hours to return, though, because the longer you wait, the more likely you are to never go back to the conversation.

  2. During the time you take the timeout, partners should separate and engage in a RELAXING activity. I emphasize the word relaxing because oftentimes partners’ natural inclination is to use this time to come up with good comebacks and rebuttals to win the argument. This is actually counterproductive, though, because this will only keep you in your emotional brain. Instead, spend the time engaging in calming activities, such as listening to music, journaling, coloring, drawing, exercising, or meditating. These activities will help soothe you and bring you back into your rational brain.

  3. You and your partner should revisit the issue that was being discussed that led to the timeout. Couples often say that it is helpful when the timeout is called, to agree on a time later when they will revisit the conversation. You need to revisit the conversation because if you do not, it will get shoved under the rug and most likely come back up in a later argument.

As I mentioned earlier, I often use this tool in work with couples, but it can be used in many other types of relationships, such as family and work. In which relationships/situations might it be helpful for you?


Gottman, J. (1994). Why marriages succeed or fail: And how you can make yours last. NY: Simon & Schuster.

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