How To Recover From A Big Fight With Your Partner, From A Therapist
"It's impossible for us to go on a simple shopping trip to buy a coffee maker without arguing."
"Why does even a simple exchange have to be so tense?"
"I don't even know what started it. All of a sudden, we were at each other's throats."
Couples argue. And even when the shouting stops, that chill in the air can linger all day. Even when you want to somehow resolve the issue and get back to a better place with your partner, you may still be mad. You get busy with a solo project, hoping time will heal, or you call your best friend and go over all the "and then they said...!" You're still mad, but now some gloom starts to set in. Here we go again...
How to recover from a big argument.
Repairing an argument is hard to do, but the cost of not doing it is high.
Learning to repair an argument is the path to recovery from all the unwanted tension they create—and the quicker, the better. An hour or two of misery definitely beats days of emotional disconnection and icy stares. Without repair, misunderstandings and hurt feelings don't disappear—they just go into hibernation and reappear at unsuspecting moments for the coming days, weeks, and even months.
When you heal the rupture, this goes a long way toward creating a feeling of safety and security with each other. With this uptick in safety, the atmosphere between you feels warmer and more connected. As a result, there are fewer sparks to ignite into another quarrel.
Step 1: Containing the damage.
Oddly enough, the beginning of a repair is actually to stop the argument as soon as possible so that there's less damage to recover from. So much of the leftover hurt and anger is about the harsh words that were exchanged in the heat of the moment. The longer the dispute goes on, the more the hurt continues to pile up and the inflicted wounds cut deeper.
As you likely know, when you're all riled up, it's really hard to stop. It's so tempting to think, "just one more sentence, and I'll prove my point!" Or, you so want to be understood that disengaging feels like conceding or giving up. But the truth is, when tempers are flaring, understanding isn't going to happen.
In a prior calm moment, agree on a "timeout" signal or word—something as simple as the traditional "T" hand signal used in sports or a neutral word such as "orange" will do. Agree that you both will respect the signal, no matter what.
Step 2: Settling into neutral.
Then physically separate. If you stay together, restarting the argument might be irresistible. You're likely either charged up or starting to feel withdrawn or emotionally shut down. Notice which is most true for you. If you're charged up, your heart might be beating a bit faster, and you're in a "fight" mode. Allow your nervous system to settle into neutral. If you're sinking, try moving even though it can be challenging to find the motivation. Going for a run or fast walk can be helpful in both situations.
Think of your logical brain being offline when you're in one of these states. Finding an equilibrium in your own nervous system is crucial before you can think clearly. This can take an hour for one person and many hours for another. Finding this state where you are neither in a charged-up mode nor a shutdown one is what can allow you to have a safer and more constructive conversation.
Even though one of you said or did something that triggered the argument, both of you likely participated in the continuing volley. This timeout period gives you the opportunity to reflect on what happened. During this time, ask yourself three questions:
- When was the very first moment when you felt hurt, dismissed, unappreciated, insulted? You'll probably have to look a layer deeper than the anger you may have felt—or still feel—as anger is a wonderful narcotic, which serves to mask more painful underlying feelings.
- How did you react? What was your tone of voice? What you say in the course of a heated exchange often causes your partner to feel threatened in some way, and they respond defensively because that's how we're designed—our first imperative is to protect ourselves.
- How do you think your partner felt? Try to put yourself in your partner's shoes and imagine how they might have felt in response to your words, tone, and behavior.
Step 3: The repair.
This is the hardest part: What do you think you contributed to the argument? You may feel innocent in causing the altercation but perhaps threw some darts that escalated the turmoil. Repair begins with an apology for your part in it, even if you think you're only responsible for 2% of what happened.
Why is it hard to apologize? If you genuinely apologize, it requires you to be vulnerable, a feeling people tend to find extremely uncomfortable. Admitting you've been wrong or behaved in a way that you're not proud of can be quite painful. Perhaps you were criticized in your family growing up, and this brings up bad feelings that you try to avoid at all costs. Perhaps apologizing makes you feel weak, or you fear that you'll lose power in the relationship. It might bring up feelings of self-loathing or worthlessness. Blaming your partner avoids all that discomfort—and keeps the argument cycle likely to continue.
A true apology comes without an explanation. "I'm sorry, but I was just so frustrated" doesn't qualify. A true apology comes from vulnerability: "I'm sorry I criticized you, and I know that hurt you." If more needs to be unpacked to find resolution, save it for a later conversation.
The bottom line.
"Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field.
I’ll meet you there."
—Rumi, 13th-century philosopher
The recipe for arguing less over time is focusing on recovery. The secret is dipping into those vulnerable feelings, stepping into your partner's shoes, and summoning up the courage to take that step of authentic apologizing. Then, when you meet each other in that field that is beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing, you can experience connection with your partner.
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Deborah J. Fox, MSW, is a licensed clinical social worker, couples counselor, and certified sex therapist with over 30 years of experience helping people enjoy their relationships and lives again. In addition to receiving her master's degree in Social Work from Catholic University, Fox is a certified sex therapist via American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists and a Certified Imago Relationship Therapist, Advanced Clinician. Her work has been featured at CNN, Mashable, Bustle, The Good Men Project, Thrive Global, and elsewhere, and her writing on the mind-body connection in sex is featured in Integrative Sex & Couples Therapy: A Therapist's Guide to New and Innovative Approaches.