Take a Time-Out

A Time-Out is a decision to temporarily disengage from an argument, conversation, interpersonal situation or conflict.

The idea of a Time-Out is modeled on the American sporting tradition of spontaneously interrupting play in order for the coach to make substitutions, manage the timing, communicate an offensive or defensive strategy and give a pep-talk to the team. Well-used time-outs can make or break a team's fortunes in American Sports.

Taking a Time-Out when dealing with a person who suffers from a personality disorder is very similar. Time-Out's can be used to change timing, strategize, change approach and manage emotions at a crucial moment or event.

Most commonly, a time-out is a good way to stop a destructive argument and cool down the emotional temperature for a while so you can think more clearly. When arguments happen, our emotional intelligence tends to take the reigns away from our cognitive intelligence - our thoughts become dominated by feelings rather than facts.

When dealing with an adult who suffers from a personality disorder, taking a time-out is not the same thing as sending a young child to a "time-out" in their bedroom for misbehaving. Taking a time-out is not something you do to someone else - it is something you do for yourself.

Comparison of Time-Out vs Silent Treatment

Note that taking a time out is not the same thing as giving someone the Silent Treatment. Many times, exiting a conversation is a healthy and constructive thing to do as part of a conflict resolution strategy, to exit a circular conversation, to escape verbal abuse or just to compose yourself. The SIlent Treatment is different from a time-out in the following ways:

  Time-Out Silent Treatment
Time Bound
Neutral or Reassuring
Physical Posture
Mutually Agreed
Engagement of Third Parties
To seek self-support
To seek alliances in the argument.
Seeks self-improvement
Seeks to improve others
Problem Focus
To find solutions
To apportion blame



  • A housewife decides to disengage from her husband who has begun shouting and provoking arguments. She tells him she has decided to go out and visit a friend for a few hours and they can discuss it later.
  • A father is concerned about his wife's temper tantrum and the effect it is having on the kids - so he takes the kids out for ice cream and tells her they will be home later.
  • A young girl feels threatened by her mother's rages and decides to go over to a friends house to study.
  • A young man feels the urge to do something violent after an argument with his girlfriend but recognizes the danger and decides to go to the gym instead.

What It Feels Like:

Taking a time-out can be a bit scary, since you are choosing to disengage from the person who has the personality disorder - and that means relinquishing control over what they might do or say next. It is often this desire to maintain control that keeps us locked in arguments and conflicts for a long time.

There can be a sudden feeling of a vacuum when disengaging - all that emotional energy from the conflict is still pumping through your veins and suddenly you find yourself in a quieter place. It will usually take a while for it to dissipate.

What NOT To Do:

  • Don't use a time-out as punishment or as a way to try to manipulate the feelings or behavior of another adult.
  • Don't leave in a threatening way or in dramatic fashion by slamming doors or shouting insults as you exit.
  • Don't wait for permission or an invitation from the other person to exit the conversation. This is your decision and you have to make it happen.
  • Don't return until after you feel better and in control of your emotions.
  • Don't drive aggressively after exiting. The adrenaline surge may impair your judgment.
  • Don't turn to substance abuse as a way of self-medicating.
  • Don't think of time-out's as a way to solve long-term relationship problems. The underlying relationship problems will still exist even if everybody feels calmer after the time-out. A time-out is a way to bring security and safety to a short-term flashpoint.

What TO Do:

  • If possible, take your focus off of the other person and use the time to do something productive just for yourself.
  • As you leave, express your feelings using "I" statements such as "I feel uncomfortable and need to take a break right now".
  • Exit the room or the environment so you can think more clearly without all the pressure.
  • Get support from others who understand about personality disorders and can relate to what you are going through.
  • Remember that feelings are transient and that both you and the other person are likely to feel different in a few hours.