The 18-Minute Rule and Why We Need to Use It in Our Relationships

Getting angry, worked up, and irrational are all normal responses in a relationship. We’re humans, we get on each other’s nerves. But when a couple gets like this, it can be hard to figure out when it’s time to try and reconcile, repair, and rebuild.

“Do I leave them alone for the night?” “Do I sleep on the couch?” “Should I talk to them yet?”

All of these are sometimes mysterious when there is conflict in the air. But what if I told you I’ve learned a magic tool through my work in education for giving an adequate amount of time so you are not trying to intervene too quickly? It’s called the “18-minute Rule.”

. . .

For a semester during my college career, I worked with an Intervention Specialist (who is also a 7th grade English Teacher) at a local middle school for one of my practicums. During this time, I would shadow her and observe as well as work with students who acted out, were having difficulties, and/or needed extra emotional support. Basically, the students who got sent to the office.

Most of these students arrive in tyrade. They might throw things, swear at the adults in the room, or are stomping around the halls. Ah yes, the sweet smell of adolescence. Aside from the fact that my cooperating teacher was a powerhouse of a woman, whenever a student came in who just couldn’t calm down enough to talk, she would always do two things: 1) She would set a timer for 18 minutes on her phone; and 2) She would tell the student that she’ll be back in 25 minutes to check on them and it was their goal to sit quietly for that time.

Now, you’re probably wondering what’s so special about the 18 minutes, and why did she lie about the amount of time she was gone? The answer to the second part of that question is because if the students feel like they accomplished something, they would feel more open to discussing and working. It was her way of making them feel a little bit better through a small success.

However, don’t use that in your relationship. Your partner is not a middle schooler…unless they are, in which case you are quite young to be on Medium.

Do use the 18 minutes. The reason why this number is so important is because that is the amount of time it takes for students’ flight or fight response to calm down and for the chemical levels associated with it to return to somewhat of a normal level. She learned this while doing her masters degree in California. This means that if you try and have cogent communication with the child while they’re in this state, you’re going to fail because they can’t yet think rationally. Giving them this time is great for all parties.

. . .

So why should we use this rule in our relationships? Well if you’re in the midst of a fight with your partner, it’s likely you’re getting defensive, stonewalling, or a myriad of other techniques to try and win. It’s incredibly likely your fight or flight response is activated. You know, that tingling sensation in the back of your neck that makes you want to move around? During this time, you’re really not going to solve anything. By continuing to argue or talk during this time, it’s also likely you’ll make things worse because you can’t quite think rationally.

Enter the “18-Minute Rule.”

When a disagreement arises, if you take a breath and respectfully tell your partner, “I’m sorry,” (or another sentence opener if you’re not ready to apologize), “but if we can take a moment a cool down before talking about this, I think it would help a lot,” you can save a lot of future headaches.

This way you can avoid insulting, belittling, or saying something else that otherwise wouldn’t have been said if it wasn’t the “heat of the moment.”

Then you set your timer, sequester yourself for a hot minute and try to calm down, and when the timer is up you try and have a cogent conversation. I am not saying this will fix your relationship or amazingly solve all your fights — I am not a relationship counselor. But at the very least, trying this technique can help set you up for success and not make things worse than they already are.

We love our partners, they love us. So it’s worth trying to do what we can to avoid situations that escalate conflict rather than working through it.

This post was previously published on Hello, Love and is republished here with permission from the author.


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