Let’s Talk About Our Relationship– Or Not

I hope any professional colleagues who might read this will afford me a moment of slightly lowered professional aplomb. I recently met with a couple who are trying to heal their relationship after a series of setbacks. Needless to say, they argue. Even folks who feel they have a happy marriage argue. But the arguments in this case threaten the continuation of the relationship. They’ve been in couple counseling before, so I assumed that they had been exposed to some of the basics about arguing, such as the basic idea of a “time out” from an argument that gets too heated. They hadn’t heard of it.

Let me say in passing that it is the lot of any talk therapist to get clients who say negative things about previous therapists. It’s more common than rare. A moment of critical thought quickly reveals at least one obvious reason: when people find a good therapist they stick with her (or him) and don’t end up telling the tale of their disappointment to another therapist. I have, on occasion, talked to folks who quite frankly shopped for therapists– “test drove” three, four, five therapists before they clicked with one. That’s fine. It’s a very good idea. And, of course, if a therapist turns out to be a dud for some reason, then the client moves on, one hopes, to a therapist who works for her/him.

BUT in my innocence I thought that any therapist who saw couples would introduce them to the beginner’s most elementary tool for managing an argument. If you get too upset, take a break. Many couples have intuitively worked this out. Somehow, this couple had not yet been exposed to the idea of a time out. If you haven’t learned them yet, the basic guidelines for a time out from an argument are these:

1. Anyone can ask for a time out. The format is: “I’m feeling too upset to continue this argument right now. We need to take a time out.”

2. The partner must agree with the time out.

3. The time out must have a declared ending time. “Let’s get back together in an hour to continue our discussion.” Even if you get back together and decide you’re still too upset and need a continuation of the time out, both parties have to honor the end time.

4. You spend the time out calming down, not mentally rehashing the argument or coming up with ways to “win” it.

Realistically, this is first aid for any relationship. Stop the bleeding. If someone is too upset to think, the argument will only go down hill. There are some corollaries to this, such as the idea that partners accept the reality of each other’s feelings. It’s not part of fighting fair to say, “You can’t possibly be so upset about something so trivial,” or other value judgments about what the feeling is, how strong it is, or what it’s about. Even if you think the issue is pathetically trivial, you accept the reality that your partner is really, really upset.

Another corollary is that you can’t resort to an indefinite series of time outs to dodge an issue. That destroys the whole time out process.

I seriously fault the previous therapist for not working on teaching them to manage conflict– but then again, maybe my clients lied to me about that. Or completely forgot that the therapist had gone over it with them. People lie to therapists. That’s another discussion altogether. But forgetting– hey, we’re all human. Happy arguing, y’all.

I’d be really interested to get feedback from folks– how many people already knew the time out idea? How many people were new to it? Maybe I’m over estimating how well known this is.



About jamesmatter

Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) in private practice in San Francisco. I work with adults, adolescents, and couples, with focus on substance use and abuse and co-occurring disorders (having both a mental illness and an addiction).
This entry was posted in arguing, behavioral health, Couple communication, Couples and relationships, Emotions, Feelings, fighting, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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