01 Jan “Time-Out”: How To Protect Your Relationship From Emotional Flooding

Relationships are stressful at times and we all know what it feels like to “lose it” when our stress levels rise too high. Marriage therapists call this being “emotionally flooded”.

Many couples make the mistake of continuing an interaction when one or both partners are emotionally flooded, which is a really bad idea. When emotionally flooded, we are not in our “rational” brain, and are very likely to say and do things that are harmful to our relationship health.

Time OutUse time-outs as a circuit breaker to halt an interaction when one or both of you have become emotionally flooded and are no longer in your “adult” (rational) brain.

When a partner calls a time-out, the underlying message is something like this:

“I know this issue is important. However right now I am emotionally flooded. So, in the interests of keeping our relationship safe, I need to pause on our interaction until I calm down.”


The partner who is becoming emotionally flooded is responsible for calling the time out. You can call time out with words: “Hey, I am becoming flooded, I need to take a time out”, and/or, you can call time-out with a gesture or code word that you have both previously agreed on.

Guidelines for the partner who calls time-out:

1. Stop the interaction immediately and move to another room/space/area (if possible)
2. Use your abdominal breathing to self-soothe/regulate your nervous system
3. Tap into other resources eg go outside into nature; listen to soothing music; take a shower; change into comfortable clothes; eat something (if blood sugar is low)
4. Wait until you feel calm, your pulse rate has returned to normal, and your breathing is steady and deep
5. Connect with the part of you that is proactive and wants to make peace (let go of grudges and resentments)
6. Then – and only then – you are ready to reconnect with your partner. Remember, if you’ve called time-out, then you are accountable for reconnecting with your partner and returning to your issue at first opportunity and in your “adult” self.

Guidelines for the partner of person who has called time-out:

1. Respect your partner’s request for time-out, regardless of whether you think it’s needed or not
2. Do not pursue further interaction, regardless of how strong your desire to continue interacting is
3. Use abdominal breathing to self-soothe/regulate your nervous system
4. Leave your partner alone – this is about protecting your relationship. Give the space and time he/she needs (note that research tells us that it takes a minimum of 20 minutes for emotional flooding to subside. For some people, it can take longer).
5. Connect with the part of you that is proactive and wants to make peace (let go of grudges and resentments)
6. When your partner is ready to reconnect, do so with a spirit of thankfulness that he/she was sensible enough to call the time out in the interests of the relationship you share.

When you reconnect after a “time-out”, what happens next?

It’s up to you. If you’re both back in “adult” mode and capable of discussing your issue again without being flooded, then go ahead. However, if one or both of you are no longer in the best headspace, or if the emotional flooding returns as soon as you start discussing your issue again, you’ll need to schedule to another time.

Some couples need to call for “time-out” many times before they learn how to keep their relationship safe from emotional flooding. The couples who persist soon learn that a healthy relationship is one where both partners stay in “adult” mode when dealing with the tricky business of relationship stress and conflict.

Pamela Pannifex is a psychotherapist, marriage therapist, naturopath and founder of Sunshine Holistic Counselling on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. For almost 25 years she has been helping people create personal wellbeing and relationships that thrive. Contact Pamela here.