Couple in a car: Man driving and staring out the window. How to recover from a Horrible Fight

IS YOUR HEAD SPINNING AFTER A TERRIBLE RELATIONSHIP FIGHT?  

How To Get Your Relationship Back On Track and Recover From a Fight

Relationship fights are the worst. We’ve all been there. I can also tell you that, as an online couples counselor and couples therapist who’s seen a lot, everyone is capable of going absolutely bananas during a relationship fight. Any marriage counselor will tell you that the sanest, most intelligent, reasonable, successful people — brilliant CEOs, steady-handed surgeons, unflappable news anchors, and uber-rational captains of industry can all become unhinged in the heat of the moment. Before I became a marriage counselor, the adventure husband and I spent a good deal of the 90’s trying to knock the corners off each other, sometimes dramatically. So I understand what it feels like to have had a terrible blowout fight, said things I regretted, and feel worried that irreparable damage has been done to your relationship.

I also know (now) that intense fights are not necessary. “Fighting,” as in yelling at each other and saying mean things, is not a productive or effective way to solve the issues in your relationship. I know that sounds like a strangely obvious thing to say when it’s written down like that. But seriously, many couples have not yet developed alternate strategies for how to get their needs met in a relationship, get their partner to understand their feelings, or solve practical problems as a couple, like who should be unloading the dishwasher and when that should happen. Basic stuff. 

Because they don’t know how to accomplish their goals in other ways, they do what they know how to do, which is often what their parents did, which is get mad and be mean to each other through saying snarky things, shutting down, turning into an ice-queen, becoming passive-aggressive, or getting weird and controlling. None of those strategies work well, and generally lead to all out angry fighting sooner or later.

While all couples have conflict (which is a good thing) not all couples fight. Good marriage counseling and couples therapy can help you learn how to stop fighting and resolve conflict in healthier ways, and stop making relationship mistakes. However, what is much more important than whether or not fights happen is how they end. When you can come back together afterwards, with an increased understanding of each other and willingness to solve problems together, your relationship is strengthened as a result. Here’s how to reconnect…

Reconnecting: How to Recover From a Fight

To mend your relationship after an argument and reconnect after a big fight, you first need to understand what made it so awful in the first place. This understanding is key. Many people are focused on “making up after a fight,” but I’m your true and loyal friend here so I’m going to give it to you straight: You do not want to gloss things over, apologize, and then try to put it behind you without actually working through whatever happened that caused the fight in the first place. 

Just because you’re not fighting doesn’t mean it’s over. If you don’t do meaningful work around understanding what the hell happened, and showing genuine empathy for your partner and a willingness to change (and then follow through with that change) your relationship is basically a ticking time bomb. The fight — possibly even the exact same fight — will happen again. 

In contrast, figuring out what happened: how it started, what felt so hurtful, and what you both could have done differently is the true path of healing your relationship after a fight. So, in order to reconnect after a big fight you do need to have an honest conversation about what happened, and — here’s the really important part — be willing to take personal responsibility for your part in it the argument

It doesn’t even matter what “started” the fight — the reasons can range from someone taking a sharp tone with the kids, to coming home with the wrong brand of salsa, to staying out all night. But it always starts with someone feeling anger, hurt or fear, and then attempting to communicate about it, and then feeling invalidated or attacked or stonewalled by their partner’s response. And then things go increasingly badly from there.

Emotional Flooding and Communication: What to Know When You Want to Recover From a Fight

— dishes are thrown, doors are slammed, or we screech off dramatically in cars to convey what our words no longer can.

You try to say how you feel — reasonably, and with good intentions — but somehow it quickly disintegrates. You get triggered. They get triggered. Emotional flooding happens. And suddenly awful things start happening. You may find yourself defensively attempting to protect yourself from the insults and accusations hurling through the air. You may find yourself screeching like a crazy person at your partner’s wooden face. [Read: How to Communicate With a Withdrawn Partner]. You may find yourself doing or saying things that you would never do, otherwise. It is shocking what can happen during a bad argument.

There is a “point of no return” for everyone. We can keep our cool and behave rationally even when we are upset, until our rage-o-meter gets up to about a five or six on a ten scale. But once we push the needle past a 7 or so, we enter the “red zone” of anger. Being able to regulate your emotions is a foundational emotional intelligence skill that almost nobody gets taught how to do. (Until they show up in marriage counseling with someone like me. Then we work on it.)

We actually know, from research, that when people get into this elevated fight-or-flight state they literally cease to think coherently, and the part of their brain that encodes ideas into language stops functioning well. We enter a primal state where our feelings are expressed through our actions — dishes are thrown, doors are slammed, or we screech off dramatically in cars to convey what our words no longer can. We disintegrate into inarticulate screaming, or lash out with insults intended to wound. [Read: Why Your Partner is Angry]. It can get intense, and scary.

And in the aftermath, you are shaky, your heart feels broken, and your mind is understandably flooded with questions. Namely, “What the hell just happened?”

How to Make Up and Recovery After a Fight

You replay events to understand where the wheels came off the bus. If you’re like most people, you walk back through the timeline to reassure yourself that your intentions were good and that you did your best. As your rational mind slowly comes back online you might be left feeling shocked and raw by the things you just experienced with your partner. Maybe you are embarrassed and ashamed by the things you said and did in the heat of the moment.You’re probably also feeling worried about what this means about your relationship, how to come back from this, and most importantly, how to make sure this never happens again.

Grow, Together.

Our authentic relationship experts know how to help you learn, grow, and move forward into a bright new chapter.

Four Tips To Recover After a Fight with Your Partner

1) Give it some time. Know how grandmothers and pop-psych gurus like to talk about “never going to bed angry?” That is complete and total crap. People vary in the amount of time it takes to calm down after a terrible fight. You might be ready to talk rationally fifteen minutes later. Your partner might need a few days to calm down. Do NOT try to make them talk to you if they aren’t there yet. Leave them alone, and they’ll show back up when they are ready to talk about what happened. Forcing the issue will only lead to round two of the horribleness.

2) Never underestimate the power of a good repair attempt. Reach out and apologize. Do the dishes. Make a joke (at your own expense, if you want to live). Come back with a peace offering, a kind word of appreciation, or at least a wry smile and a hug. Make a thoughtful apology that communicates remorse in a way that is meaningful to them. Show your partner that you are sorry about what happened and that you still love them. It may still be too fragile to talk about it, but at least you are showing them that you are available to make it better when they are.

3) Own your stuff. It is very easy to fixate on your partner’s problems, and how they were responsible for the fight. We all are prone to think about how, “If they’d only done something differently / been more responsible / followed through / used a different tone none of this would have happened.” I get it, and I agree that your partner probably does have some things to work on. And you and I also know that you are not perfect, and could have done some things differently too. If you want to mend your relationship and have the opportunity to work on things together, it would be much more effective for you to take ownership for your stuff. There is power in authentic vulnerability, At the very least, your setting a good example and keeping your side of the street clean will help your partner take ownership for their parts of the conflict too.

4) Solve the problem. No relationship problems are ever actually solved during a fight. When people are shouting, no one is listening. But after the dust settles and everyone is calm again — that is the time to address the underlying problems that caused the fight in the first place. Remember, it’s never about the salsa. Look deeper, and see if you can identify the bigger issues underneath, like trust, security, love, appreciation, partnership, values, or connection. When you work on that level, the real issues are addressed and your connection is healed.

And remember, if it keeps exploding in your face (or going nowhere) every time you try to talk about it, that is a good sign that you could benefit from marriage counseling. A great marriage counselor can help you talk about tender things productively, break the pursuer-distancer pattern in relationships, and help you and / or your partner take ownership for (or even see) how they are contributing to the issues. They can teach you both the skills you need to head off yucky arguments and simply solve problems together without all the drama. 

But most importantly, they can help you strengthen your secure attachment and deepen your connection — which makes hurt, fear, and anger much more likely to bubble up in the first place.

We’re always here to talk if you ever need us. Just schedule your free consultation session, in person or online. 

All the best to you both,

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Growing Self Counseling and Coaching

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22 Comments

  1. This doesn’t work if you’re married (for 16 years!) to someone with Alexithymia who isn’t willing to learn about himself and good relationship communication.

    1. Kay, good point. If you’re in a relationship with someone who is not able or willing to meet you half way (or even try to communicate in productive ways) it is incredibly difficult to repair. It can be an important growth journey to understand yourself, and what you really need out of a relationship, and to strengthen yourself to the point where you’re not willing to tolerate less than what you deserve. Sounds like that’s been your journey Kay, and I’m glad for that. Cheers to clarity! 😉
      xoxo, LMB

  2. Love your common sense logical approach – especially the own your Own Your Own Stuff paragraph …

    1. I’m so glad to hear that Anna. I know that these strategies can be hard to do in the moment, especially when you’re feeling hurt and mad, but it says so much about you that you tried them anyway. You sound like a great sister! Keep up the good work kiddo! xoxo, Dr. Lisa

      1. This is a great article. My husband and I have had many horrible fights especially after we had a baby, however this last fight was so bad I can’t seem to recover from it. We apologized but the deeper issues are not addressed. The fights always get worse and worse especially during this pandemic and after moving in with my in-laws. On top of that, we just found out she has breast cancer. I want to be there and be supportive of him, but my heart is not in it. I just feel numb and just don’t care anymore. What do I do?

        1. Oh Sandi, that’s so hard. You’re right: When toxic, negative relationship cycles go on for too long it creates real and lasting damage to a relationship. There comes a point where it’s too late to save a marriage, and that happens when one (or both) people literally doesn’t care anymore. You want to care. You want to love. But you just don’t.

          Sometimes relationships, even at this point, can be saved, but it’s hard work. I would encourage you to listen to these podcasts to help you get clarity about what’s possible (and what isn’t) for your relationship. Discernment Counseling is a good one to listen to if you’re not sure you want to work on it, but maybe your husband does. “When to Call it Quits in a Relationship” is another good one to help you get clarity about whether or not this is worth saving.

          I know for sure that NOTHING here is going to change by saying sorry or doing superficial things. You have sustained deep wounds. If you want to improve this situation it’s vital that you get effective help by a marriage counselor who practices evidence-based forms of couple’s therapy. Two parts to that: First, see a marriage counselor. 95% of therapists who work with couples (inducing doctoral-level psychologists) have hardly any training in couples and family therapy and do not know how to help you with something like this.

          Couples counseling is a highly specialized form of practice, and it is often unsuccessful when attempted by basic garden variety therapists. (Aka, most of them). Please seek help from a licensed marriage and family therapist, who will have years (years!) of specialized training and experience in helping couples heal. (Please see “How to Find a Good Marriage Counselor” for more on this).

          But also, be sure that you’re working with an MFT who practices an evidence-based form of couples therapy such as the Gottman Method of Marriage Counseling, or Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy. This too makes a huge difference in outcomes.

          I don’t know whether or not you can come back from the brink here, and start caring about your husband again. But depending on your situation (like, if you have kids together) it’s definitely worth exploring evidence-based marriage counseling with a marriage and family therapist to see. Even if you wind up divorcing, you’ll know that you genuinely tried everything that you could, and that’s worth something.

          Wishing you all the very best dear….

          Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

  3. This doesn’t work if you’re married (for 16 years!) to someone with Alexithymia who isn’t willing to learn about himself and good relationship communication.

  4. Kay, good point. If you’re in a relationship with someone who is not able or willing to meet you half way (or even try to communicate in productive ways) it is incredibly difficult to repair. It can be an important growth journey to understand yourself, and what you really need out of a relationship, and to strengthen yourself to the point where you’re not willing to tolerate less than what you deserve. Sounds like that’s been your journey Kay, and I’m glad for that. Cheers to clarity! 😉
    xoxo, LMB

  5. Just had a screaming match with my sister and came up to my room and read this and tried it and it worked thank you.

  6. I’m so glad to hear that Anna. I know that these strategies can be hard to do in the moment, especially when you’re feeling hurt and mad, but it says so much about you that you tried them anyway. You sound like a great sister! Keep up the good work kiddo! xoxo, Dr. Lisa

  7. This is a great article. My husband and I have had many horrible fights especially after we had a baby, however this last fight was so bad I can’t seem to recover from it. We apologized but the deeper issues are not addressed. The fights always get worse and worse especially during this pandemic and after moving in with my in-laws. On top of that, we just found out she has breast cancer. I want to be there and be supportive of him, but my heart is not in it. I just feel numb and just don’t care anymore. What do I do?

  8. Oh Sandi, that’s so hard. You’re right: When toxic, negative relationship cycles go on for too long it creates real and lasting damage to a relationship. There comes a point where it’s too late to save a marriage, and that happens when one (or both) people literally doesn’t care anymore. You want to care. You want to love. But you just don’t.

    Sometimes relationships, even at this point, can be saved, but it’s hard work. I would encourage you to listen to these podcasts to help you get clarity about what’s possible (and what isn’t) for your relationship. Discernment Counseling is a good one to listen to if you’re not sure you want to work on it, but maybe your husband does. “When to Call it Quits in a Relationship” is another good one to help you get clarity about whether or not this is worth saving.

    I know for sure that NOTHING here is going to change by saying sorry or doing superficial things. You have sustained deep wounds. If you want to improve this situation it’s vital that you get effective help by a marriage counselor who practices evidence-based forms of couple’s therapy. Two parts to that: First, see a marriage counselor. 95% of therapists who work with couples (inducing doctoral-level psychologists) have hardly any training in couples and family therapy and do not know how to help you with something like this.

    Couples counseling is a highly specialized form of practice, and it is often unsuccessful when attempted by basic garden variety therapists. (Aka, most of them). Please seek help from a licensed marriage and family therapist, who will have years (years!) of specialized training and experience in helping couples heal. (Please see “How to Find a Good Marriage Counselor” for more on this).

    But also, be sure that you’re working with an MFT who practices an evidence-based form of couples therapy such as the Gottman Method of Marriage Counseling, or Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy. This too makes a huge difference in outcomes.

    I don’t know whether or not you can come back from the brink here, and start caring about your husband again. But depending on your situation (like, if you have kids together) it’s definitely worth exploring evidence-based marriage counseling with a marriage and family therapist to see. Even if you wind up divorcing, you’ll know that you genuinely tried everything that you could, and that’s worth something.

    Wishing you all the very best dear….

    Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

  9. Would several weeks seem a reasonable amount of time before the fight resolution starts. It would seem that this creates further negativity and frustration with the partner who wishes to go forward positively.

  10. I just had the worst fight of my marriage. I have been trying to figure out what to do. My husband is still mad and won’t talk. I found this article and the first thing you prescribe is to just let it take the time. I am ready to move on, but he is not. Understandably. I am still at a loss as to where to go from here, but I am thankful for this simple few steps to try. Thank you.

  11. My husband and I are 8 months married. And we have had 4 horrible fights. The last one happened a month back and we have not talked to each other since. In all the fights my in-laws always take his side and I am left alone. Root cause of all these problems is related to my in-laws. My husband is very indecisive and is ready to whatever is told by his parents and sister. My husband lies a lot to me and has never supported me in any situation. During the last fight, I was pregnant by 4 weeks and he had no care that I was pregnant. He used very abusive words against me. He left me at my mother’s place and left saying that he doesn’t want to stay in the marriage.

    Can this marriage be saved ? I want to fix things with my husband. But he will want only me to adjust and fix everything. He has never taken ownership of any of his wrong doings so far.

    What should I do ?

  12. Hi, I’m so sorry you are going through this. You may want to listen to “How to Deal with In Laws.” But, truly, my recommendation is that you meet with a couples counselor. Would you and your husband be open to this? Even if he isn’t, you’d get so much relief and support from meeting with a therapist who can help you navigate this very tough situation. Sending you warm thoughts, Dr. Lisa

  13. Ida, thank you for reaching out. I know it’s so hard. But you’ve got it right – if he’s asking for space, respecting that while being clear that you are open and available to listen without judgement, defensiveness, or ‘comebacks’ when his ready, is key. xoxo, Dr. Lisa

  14. Drew, good question. Several weeks is far too long. We need a minimum of 15 minutes to regulate the nervous system if we’re feeling flooded, but more time is also often necessary. Once calm, we should come back to our partner to connect. Going for days or weeks with unresolved hurt is essentially stonewalling, and damages the bond between us. It helps to set boundaries and agree on expectations, together, when you’re not in a fight. Have a phrase for when you need to take a break (“I’m feeling overwhelmed. Can we take a time out?” for example) and agree to come back together within a certain time frame. Use your time out to practice self-soothing and regulation tools. xoxo, Dr. Lisa

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