Over the past 27 years in working with couples and families, I have come to understand what couples need first when they encounter trouble in their relationship. They first need a way to stop the bleeding. Couples work focuses on the process of the couple and on the characters that each partner brings that create or shape the process that the partners co-create. Many couples who have reached the point of distress where they are willing to go to couples therapy, have already tried everything they know to make things better including walking away. Most people are passionate about preserving their relationship with their partner and it is easy to view walking away as abandonment, potentially making the situation worse. This view can keep partners from taking a timeout when it is most needed. Some fear taking a timeout will leave their partner feeling abandoned thereby furthering the argument. I’ve often heard a wife or husband refer to a time they took a time out with good intentions resulting in their partner becoming suspicious as to their whereabouts which seemed to each to worsen things. So, the very mechanics of taking a “Healthy Couples Time-Out” are very important if one’s positive intention of making the process better is to be reached.
The therapists at Compass Family Counseling understand that you come to your first couples or family session therapy often when things are at their worst and when you and your partner are at your wit’s end. You have questions about the future of your relationship which means you have questions about your future as well. The urgency for healing may be punctuated by something that has happened. There is a threat to the future of your relationship because someone has “crossed the line”. Abuse, withdrawal, incidents of infidelity or unfaithfulness, invasions of privacy, being less trustful of one another, avoiding opportunities for intimacy and developing or maintain relationships with the opposite sex are some examples of “crossing the line.” Once it is believed that the “line has been crossed” the “gloves may come off.” The boat has been rocked and time outs may seem to be ineffective.
I see the relationship the couple maintains as a living and growing thing in itself. I approach my clinical work much like a doctor. It is essential to fully assess and triage at the start of couples work. Many couples need a way to stop the bleeding so that their relationship does not worsen or end prior to the next session. What I have come to call an Accountable Time Out is in my experience is just the tool that is needed at such times. If used properly, it has potential to result in rational and productive discussions between you and your partner. One reason is because we are better able to think, process and problem solve better when we are not in fight of flight mode. The accountable time out allows both partners to reap the benefits of the time out fairly without creating more problems. It will allow you to create healing space for yourself, your partner and for the relationship itself.
The therapist of Compass Family Counseling are committed to the health of couples and families. Accountable time outs are not just for distressed couples. Every relationship can benefit from accountable time outs. They can slow down escalation, allow for time to reflect and empathize with the other party preparing you to create and enter into the type of positive interactions you want to share with others even when problems occur. It may slow things down enough that you never need our services. However, if you feel that more is needed, we stand ready to help and respond to calls often within 2 hours so that you can get the help you need when you are ready to get it.
Accountable Time Out Process:
The first step in the Accountable Time Out Process is for each party to discuss this process when they are not in conflict but in preparation for future conflicts. That way, when the tool is used, it has already been decided that time outs in this manner are permissible. Each partner must be willing actively monitor themselves and the exchange they are having with their partner when arguments take place. However, the most important item here is to monitor your own internal emotional experience because that is your signal that a time out may be needed. If you feel that your emotions are driving you and that you may say or do something that will do more damage than good, stop and tell your partner the following. “My emotions are starting to get the better of me and I want to make sure that in control as we continue to discuss this. I would like to take a time out for X amount of time (according to what you really think you need to calm down). I will be at Y location (my apartment, the garage, the kitchen, reading this book) while I’m cooling down. Can we come back at this Z (the kitchen) at this time (2:00 p.m.) to talk about this more. When we meet up then, I will let you know if I need another time out to keep cooling off and you can let me know if you need more time too.”
In the above example, the couple would again be accountable to each other as to where they will be during the time out and what time they will meet up where should either party need more time. Notice that the dialogue above invites the party who did not initiate the original timeout to take a time out as well when the couple reunites. It may be that while the person who took the time out was cooling down, the other party was getting angrier. In these situation, the accountable time out process allows for attunement to the readiness of both partners and brings them together at a time when the discussion can be most productive, the stage of readiness. As an experienced couples therapist, I really cannot say enough about the “stage of readiness” and the importance of both parties entering this stage at the same time if they are to be productive when there is frequent arguing. I think this is what couples that I have worked with communicate to me when they say, “We just can’t seem to line up.” If you have interest in more writing about the stage of readiness, send us a note to let us know of your interest. We hope the information we share can be a point of healing and a bright sign of hope that change is possible. One thing that couples therapy brings is new skills and hope at a time when both partners are ready for change. That is when most couples walk thought my door. The tension may be high but the potential is palpable.
Russ Urrutia, LCSW
Adelante Familias/Forward Families
Compass Family Counseling Therapist