Question: Whenever I get into a heated argument with my husband he says he “can’t talk about it anymore“ or “I’m impossible.” Sometimes he storms out of the house and drives away. It makes me crazy. I text him asking where he is and when he’s coming back. He says I need to give him space to cool down. How can I get him to stop this?

Answer: Breaks, or timeouts, can be healthy during arguments, but abandoning your partner and leaving them hanging is not. It can result in a person more anxious, hurt, and angry than they were during the argument. Here are some tips for doing timeouts right.

  • Tell your spouse you’re feeling overwhelmed. Confirm the importance of your partner and the topic you’re discussing, but stress your need for a break from the intensity of the argument. Be specific on the framework and duration of the pause you’re asking for, such as avoiding the topic for 20 minutes, or for the night, or that you’re going to take a drive for an hour.
  • During the timeout both of you should focus on self-soothing and trying to understand where your partner is coming from in his or her position rather than thinking about strengthening your argument and dismantling your partner’s. Focus on win-win versus win-lose solutions.
  • When the requested break ends, the person who asked for it should re-engage in the relationship, and perhaps the discussion, or if needed ask for an extension. Never leave your partner hanging! When you do re-engage, thank your partner for honoring the requested boundaries. Acknowledge how hard it might have been for him or her to support the timeout (the wait). Share your insights about why you became triggered and validate your partner’s emotions, including why you think they may have felt so strongly about their position. Finally, reassure your partner about his or her importance to you and the importance of the relationship.