“I guess I just don’t know when to shut up.”

I appreciated the husband’s honesty as he described the communication breakdown in his marriage. Over time he had done extensive damage to his relationship with his wife whom he claimed to love and value. In his frustration and anger he would say whatever came to his mind, regardless of the hurt his words would cause. He admitted that he had to win every argument and he would say whatever it took to win. As I listened to his goal about winning and his confession of love for his wife, I admit that I felt confused.  And if I felt confused, how much more confusion must his wife have felt as she saw the obvious conflict between his words of love and his words of abuse!
How unusual is it for a person “not to know when to shut up” in communicating with his/her spouse? Unfortunately, the problem is more prevalent than preferred, and when the problem becomes a pattern, the marriage invites destructive collisions and relationship breakdowns. Predictably, safe relationship travel becomes very risky at best.
Recently I was near an interstate highway and was observing the traffic heading north into the downtown area. The cars were all moving at great speed toward their destinations. As I watched the fast-moving vehicles, I began to ponder the potential for collisions. Safe and successful road travel requires the ability to follow the rules of the road, to stay in one’s own lane, to change lanes, to go forward—and the ability to slow down or stop. Without good brakes on his car a traveler drives at great risk to all who are on the highway, including himself! Knowing when to slow down or to stop completely is a learned skill vital to safe driving. A good question is, “What is the current status of my brakes and how skilled am I at using them?” What if our brakes are worn or damaged and are therefore inoperable? You would do as I did a while back—head for the repair shop for pads, shoes, rotors, calipers, and anything else required by the braking system.
As I watched the mechanic repair my brakes, I thought about the similarity to the communication process in personal relationships. As a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist I’ve seen many marital collisions caused by a spouse whose brakes failed—he did not know when to stop talking. Even though his words and tones were clearly causing damage, the husband would just keep on talking, at least until I intervened to stop the verbal bloodshed.
Effective communication in marriage (or in any human relationship) involves a number of talking skills and listening skills. One of those important talking skills relates to what I call an “operational communication braking system.” Each person needs to know when—and how—to slow down the talking process or else to stop totally. The lack of this skill is an open invitation to relationship disaster. Recognizing this truth, you ask, “How do I hit the brakes? How do I stop talking?” Thankfully, several solutions are available for our usage. One very useful and workable tool is a Time-out process designed to promote and protect relationship safety.
Imagine that you and your spouse are driving down a highway and you see in the distance bright red tail lights along with blue-and-red-and-yellow flashing lights, indicating that a major collision has occurred, emergency vehicles are working the accident, and traffic is stalled. In view of what’s ahead, do you continue driving at full speed and become part of the collision, or do you “hit the brakes” and stop your car? Obviously, as a wise and safe driver you choose to stop and wait it out. Safety first—good choice!
Now imagine that you and your spouse are discussing some issue and your frustration begins to escalate. Along with the frustration comes anger, and your anger intensifies until it’s about to explode. From painful experience you know that your next few words will be lethal weapons. So what do you do? Do you “keep on driving” (that is, talking) and thereby cause a major marital collision, or do you choose to “stop driving” and thereby prevent damage and hurt?  Because you love your spouse and value your relationship you naturally choose to stop so that you can “cool down” and decrease your anger. To accomplish your goal you “hit your brakes” and you ask for—and use—a Time-out. Safety first—good choice!
Every couple needs a Time-out Program that they have developed for their relationship. If you already have a program that you like and that works for you, keep on using it as needed in order to safeguard your marriage. However, if you do not currently have a Time-out Program, it’s time to start one. Allow me to suggest three important steps to follow as you develop your plan.
Step #1:  Define your purpose. A Time-out is a communication “braking system” tool that provides a “break in the action” through the use of a calming-down period. The purpose is NOT to avoid and escape a discussion, nor to retreat in order to “reload” or to find more ammunition, neither is it a way to frustrate or punish your spouse. Rather, the purpose is to decrease the anger and to calm down to prevent damage and to promote safety. The result of the Time-out is an increased ability to re-engage the spouse in healthy and productive communication.
Step #2:  Develop a plan. A workable plan requires six key components.
1.  An arranged request.  You need for your spouse to understand that you want a Time-out, so your signal must be pre-arranged and very clear. You could use a non-verbal signal such as the “T-sign” that athletes use in sports to ask the referee for a Time-out. Or, you could simply state, “Time-out, please.” Any signal can work as long as both spouses understand it and will accept it whenever used.
2. An agreeable response. By prior commitment to the Time-out Program your spouse agrees to the request, even though she may personally prefer to continue with the discussion. She responds to your request with a nod of agreement or a clear “Okay, Time-out.”
3. An assertive removal. Without any type of “parting shot” or “parting gesture” each spouse immediately goes to a previously-chosen place for the Time-out. They purposely get away from each other during the Time-out period. Some couples prefer that they do not leave the property or go for a drive in the car. Going outside in the yard or to the garage could be a workable choice.
4. An achievable relaxation. When you are in your Time-out place you try to calm down and soothe yourself through relaxation. You try to divert your attention or to do something that you know will help you calm down. (By the way, your “calming down” activity should not involve the abuse of alcohol or drugs or any other inappropriate behavior.) Your goal is to achieve some personal relaxation.
5. An attentive return. Whoever initiates the Time-out has the responsibility to keep up with the time and to return to the other spouse within the allotted time period (perhaps plus/minus five minutes). The default time period may be thirty, sixty, or ninety minutes, based on the time you and your spouse chose for your particular program. If the “default” time is not sufficient for you to calm down, you return to your spouse and negotiate a second Time-out.
6. An appreciative re-engagement. When your Time-out is completed, you find your spouse and indicate that you are ready to resume the discussion. You could begin by thanking your spouse for the Time-out, and you might apologize for something you did or said prior to the Time-out, such as “I’m sorry for getting so angry. The Time-out helped me to calm down. Now, we were talking about . . . .” Because of the Time-out the re-engaged discussion is more positive and productive.
Step #3:  Decide to practice. Suppose that you work hard and develop a marvelous Time-out Program. The process looks great on paper. However, suppose that you never practice the process until you are in the “heat of the moment.” At that point when you are very upset or angry and therefore need a Time-out, you’re trying to remember the details of the plan. That’s a tough and risky approach to take. Instead, why not practice your plan? If we see the importance of practicing fire drills or tornado drills, why not Time-out drills? Choose several times when you’re both in good moods and are happy with each other as a “Time-out drill time.” Each spouse can practice the initiation of a Time-out along with practicing the entire process (going to your selected place, using the allotted time appropriately, re-engaging the discussion, etc.) so that you will feel competent and comfortable with the plan you’ve agreed to use. This practice will help you identify any components that warrant some refinement or “fine-tuning.” 
Additional factors: Several other factors are worthy of consideration as you design your personalized Time-out Program. Let’s briefly consider three issues: children, abandonment, and commitment.
First, the presence of children has to be factored into the Time-out equation. Some couples decide that the spouse who did NOT initiate the Time-out is to be the default “parent-on-duty” for the children. That decision allows the other spouse to have the time and space needed for calming down. Try to develop a plan for the children that will work adequately for your family situation.

Secondly, a spouse might feel a sense of rejection and/or abandonment when the other spouse suddenly requests a Time-out and walks away. Spouses are much less likely to feel rejected or abandoned if they understand and accept the basic purpose of the Time-out Program. With that purpose clearly in mind the responding spouse is more likely to welcome and appreciate the Time-out that the initiating spouse has requested. In order to prevent this sense of rejection or abandonment the initiating spouse could give the other spouse a 3X5 Time-out card that contains a message of reassurance. That written message could be something like, “I’m taking this Time-out because I love you and I value our relationship. I’m trying to safeguard it through this Time-out so that I will not say something that would be harmful or hurtful. I will return within our agreed-upon time and we will continue our discussion then. Thanks for granting me this time to cool down.” The reassurance card is something tangible that the responding spouse can “hold on to” to keep the anxiety at a manageable level.

Thirdly, please consider the importance of personal commitment to the Time-out Program that you and your spouse finalize. I’ve encouraged couples to write out their program to make certain that the Time-out’s purpose and the plan’s details are clearly understood. The description could end with a statement of acceptance and commitment, followed by a place for signatures and the date signed. The result is a useful “relationship contract” which becomes part of the couple’s relationship roadmap. Each spouse accepts the contract, commits to it, and signs the document to confirm the intent to use the Time-out Program whenever needed.

These three steps and three related issues are important considerations for your Time-out Program. I hope that you will develop a good program for you and your spouse to use effectively. Such a program will not guarantee marital success, but it will help you to travel safely as you move forward in your relationship journey. I hope that you will work hard to develop good talking skills, and, likewise, I hope that you will work hard to develop and use good stopping skills. Just as good brakes are essential to your driving safety, so a good communication braking system is vital to your relationship safety. As you learn to “know when to stop talking,” remember the wise prayer, “Lord, fill my mouth with worthwhile stuff and nudge me when I’ve said enough.”
I wish you the very best in your relationship journey.

 VIDEO:  To view a three-minute video clip in which Dr. Baker uses a car’s brake system to discuss the importance of a Time-out Program in communication, click here.
VIDEO:  To see a television interview in which Dr. Baker discusses "Communication:  How to Use a Time-Out" please click on the image to the right or click here. 


    (Blog: Communication/Conflict # 501)
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