The Timed Tantrum

My wife Ellyn and I are hard at work looking for new and innovative ways to support your clients in these trying times. We’ve asked therapists in our online training group what’s working for them, we surveyed thousands of therapists about their ideas, and we’ve asked friends what has helped them stay sane at home in quarantine with their partner. Recently a great idea came to us from our daughter, Molly. Her #Quaranteam is herself and her partner, Jake. To deal with the mounting stress and anxiety they’ve come up with something they call the Timed Tantrum. It was born in reaction to one of them just walking into the room and spilling their doom and gloom dread all over the other one, while the other sat there in stunned silence over how dark the thoughts were. Knowing they couldn’t take unprompted dark clouds at any given moment from the other, they came up with the Timed Tantrum. It’s a timed exercise when one of them feels overcome with darkness. One of them will say to the other, “Hey, can I have a Timed Tantrum?”  If the other is available for it, they’ll say yes. These are the parameters. You set an agreed-upon timeframe upfront. Molly may say “I’d like up to 5 minutes,” and Jake will let her know if he has the capacity for that at that time. If so, Molly has permission to unload everything that’s ailing her. She has full freedom to go dark, to make complaints, to whine about things being unfair, to air grievances, to make depressing commentary, or whatever else she wants to express. The understanding here is that Jake does not have to take any of it on. He’s not there to fix. He doesn’t have to take anything personally. He doesn’t need to bring that stuff up later in another conversation, and they don’t need to process the feelings. He’s just holding space. Being the dreamcatcher that lets the dark stuff filter through him and not stick to him. At the end of the time, Jake simply says, “I’m glad you took the time to clear the air.” And then they are DONE. They don’t sit and process the feelings or brainstorm solutions. Jake doesn’t snap back with all his complaints about Molly. They are done until another request for a Timed Tantrum. They get up, change activities, maybe they end with a hug or a cuddle. But they don’t keep diving into the feelings. This time is used exclusively to let someone offload the dark feelings that are getting in the way When someone has permission to go all the way to the bottom of the well, they can feel incredibly lighter on the other side. A few logistics:
  1. The Tantrumer says, “I would like up to X minutes.”
  2. If the Listener is available for that, they are the one who keep the time. If they aren’t, they give a time of day they can listen and keep track of time.
  3. The Tantrumer has permission to say whatever is on their mind, with the understanding that their listener is NOT there to fix it, make changes, change their behavior to make the Tantrumer feel better, or to problem solve.
  4. The Listener does not interrupt, problem solve, or make suggestions. At best they can try to listen in an empathetic but detached way. Their only response is to say, “Thanks for getting this off your chest.”
  5. When the timer goes off, Tantrum Time is done. The Tantrumer may have some feelings about that. If they need more time, they’re going to learn a lot about themselves in the process of not getting more time right away: either to ask for more time upfront or that more time wasn’t really necessary. Maybe they’ll learn some other strategies like journaling, mindfulness practice, or calling another friend. It’s important to stay within the agreed-upon time limit.
  6. One final guideline. This is NOT an opportunity to go nuclear on your partner. If there are many raw emotions circulating around, this is NOT a good exercise. It has the possibility of just opening up more wounds. So use discretion how comprehensive and how deep you go.
Good luck. If you’d like to go further working with couples that are quarantined together, check out our recent training on Cabin Fever Couples: Answers to Their Biggest Problems. In this 1 ½ hour webinar we taught how to solve Cabin Fever Couples’ biggest problems through a series of low risk experiments – and create a stronger team and a stronger marriage at the same time.

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Can the person tantruming complain about their partner?

Barbara Griswold
Barbara Griswold

When I went through my training, we learned this technique to teach people in relationships, but it was called a “Vesuvius” because it feels like an explosion and venting of hot lava. My husband and I use this, and it really helps because he knows all that is expected of him is to just listen and not fix. I’ve taught him at the end he is just supposed to give me a hug.

Dr. Ellyn Bader
Dr. Ellyn Bader

You can complain about behavior-No character assassinations! And Barbara-I had forgotten all about the Vesuvius, but yes they are super similar


Could you talk a little about the value of the tantrum please. As someone who has tatrummed on more than one occasion in 35 yrs of marriage, (with a very patient, supportive partner)I now wonder if I was just being self-indulgent and wether it really was more helpful than say journaling or any other technique for regulating intense emotion. Thanks

Julie Smith
Julie Smith

As someone who had a wake up call in my marriage many years ago with the realisation that I was having tantrums which were never productive and that I needed to learn to self-regulate my emotions, this makes me nervous. I wonder if it could be called another name? With more defined rules of engagement perhaps? I feel for me it may undo a lot of good work.

Robyn Blythe
Robyn Blythe

The tantrum can involve verbal abuse that traumatizes the time keeper and leaves no healing for the time keeper who is allowed no time to process their hurt or fears and is left with internal wounds and scars inflicted by their spouse. I will never use this intervention!

Pete Pearson
Pete Pearson

Every criticism mentioned is valid.
There is no intervention that works for just about everybody.
I cautioned this is not for everyone. And it is not designed as a mechanism for abusing your partner. It does work for some – not for others.
Yes, you have to use discretion with what is expressed.
Too much of anything (except chocolate) is not so great.
There is no progress on anything without dialogue. So I appreciate adding your voices
to this discussion.

Carmen Romero
Carmen Romero

I disagree with Pete. Too much chocolate is not really a good thing. I also found the Timed Tantrum very interesting. Way back when, in California, when venting our anger was a discovery many people over used it. Following that, it became not useful. This technique, well applied can be awesome. Thank you for sharing.

frank Roberts
frank Roberts

George Bach, who invented the “Vesuvius” also developed a ritual for uninhibited dumping on your partner called “The Doghouse” in which the complainer is free of all rules of propriety – except for permission of the partner. As a therpist. I tried it on 3 couples – with disastrous results!

Dr. Ellyn Bader

Hi Frank and others-The timed tantrum is only for specific couples who can use it well. The therapist must use discretion and only use it with those who can be responsible and respectful!

Ellyn Bader

Dr. Peter Pearson, PhD, and his wife Dr. Ellyn Bader, PhD, founded The Couples Institute in 1984. Dr. Ellyn Bader is psychologists and director of the couples institute of the Institute and continually receive industry and media attention for their innovations in couples therapy.

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