As a relationship therapist, I have had the opportunity to work with many couples who come looking for answers for their communication woes. How many of us have experienced that gut-wrenching feeling after a fight with our partner? Maybe you don’t feel heard, perhaps you feel like what you have to say about the topic is being misconstrued, or maybe you don’t know how to get your feelings across properly. Many couples who decide to engage in couples counseling are often doing so because they are experiencing unproductive communication, or they are at a loss as to how to resolve the conflict.
What you should know is that there is a better way to communicate, and out of better communication will come resolution to the conflict. Using positive communication skills can also help you find a path forward, and make-up after a fight.
How to Heal a Relationship After a Fight
Turning conflict into connection can seem like a merely unattainable relationship goal. You might be thinking that it’s not worth the effort to try and even communicate about the conflict because it will just encourage another argument – but it doesn’t have to be that way. You can choose to consciously practice (and I say practice because it can take time) a form of better communication. Not only will it help you recover after a fight, but also strengthen your relationship.
This week on The Love, Happiness and Success blog I am sharing what positive communication steps you can take to heal your relationship after a fight and turn your conflict into connection.
Allow me to tell you a little story to illustrate what I mean by empathy. One unfortunate day a number of years ago, I found myself standing at the check-in desk in the emergency room, waiting for the triage nurse to return. I was holding my four-year-old son, who, thirty minutes before, had tripped and landed head first on the thin edge of a glass coffee table. The sickeningly large goose-egg on his forehead was quickly turning purple. I was imagining skull fractures, blood clots, and news stories of people lost to silent brain hemorrhages were replaying in my mind.
I pressed the side of my face against his sweet golden hair and looked up to see an older woman sitting in the waiting area, watching me. She looked at me with deep compassion. I knew that she knew exactly what it felt like to hold a beloved, injured child, and to be in the terrifying time-before-knowing. Her just looking at me so compassionately broke through my adrenalin-fueled shock, and I came back into my body.
Just being understood by her unleashed hot tears of anguish and fear which overwhelmed me, because it allowed me to connect with my own emotions. Her look said, “I feel your pain, Mom,” and I just lost it for a moment, before messily attempting to pull it together so as not to further scare my kid. At that moment, though I still felt so scared and in pain for my child, I also felt known… and not alone. I felt one with terrified mothers everywhere, and that in itself was a comfort. (I can still get a little teary even now, writing about it).
Her understanding how I felt — and caring about it — was empathy in action.
Empathy is The First Step in Creating Connection
To intuit how another person is feeling is the foundation of being able to relate. To have a sense of another’s anxiety, hurt, or joy is a pre-requisite of being able to understand them. Without the context of feelings, people are often mystifying. Understanding feelings is like being at the theater and seeing the stage, props and costumes of a play—it provides the setting for the words and actions of others to make sense. Empathy is a fundamental skill of Emotional Intelligence, as well as the foundation of evidence-based marriage counseling approaches like Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy.
Empathy is also at the core of compassion. To have a sense of another’s vulnerability, and how it’s similar to yours, generates kindness. Empathy helps us understand the great truth of relationships: We are the same. Yes, we have different personalities, life experiences, values and core beliefs. And yet we are still more similar than different. We all want to love and be loved, to be safe, to have healthy children, and to be happy.
Others are just as “real” as you are. The emotional experience of others is as true for them as yours is to you. Feelings are a fact that cannot be argued. Having empathy means accepting the emotional truth of another, and attempting to understand it. If you can do that, you can connect with people on a deep level and help them feel genuinely loved and cared for by you.
Cultivate Empathy For Others By Tuning Into Yourself
How to cultivate this ability, and be able to connect emotionally with another person? Start with yourself. Do you know how you feel? Without that awareness it is almost impossible to understand someone else. I bet the woman in the waiting room knew her own feelings—that was how she could understand mine. Like a bell that vibrates when held close to a singing voice, your emotional awareness resonates with the felt experience of others.
Practice noticing and naming the layers of emotion within you. Notice what hurts or scares or pleases you. Use your self-awareness to become more sensitive to how others may be feeling in similar situations. Then allow that knowledge to influence your words and deeds. When you develop more empathy for others, you are able to treat them with the dignity, respect, and understanding that you yourself desire. When you can put yourself in someone else’s emotional shoes, you will become softer and kinder, you will be able to relate to others more easily, and your relationships will improve.
If Communication in Your Relationship Has Been Feeling Hard Lately, Try This:
Do you feel like there’s a new fight always simmering under the surface with your partner lately? Or like they’re so quick to take offense, or shut down? Do you find yourself feeling that lately, whatever you say or do (or don’t do) is misunderstood and taken the wrong way? I get it. (Yes, I have empathy for you because I have felt that way in my own marriage before, too).
Reach for empathy to turn things around in your relationship.
The next time your partner responds badly to whatever they’ve interpreted you as having said or done, instead of reflexively getting upset back at them, try to use your power of empathy to understand how they feel. Take a guess, and say it out loud: “I’ve hurt your feelings, haven’t I?” Or, “What I said just now made you feel criticized by me, didn’t it?” Or, “I’m guessing that you just stopped talking right now and turned away because you’re worried that this is going to turn into another argument, or that I’m going to get upset.” Whatever you are guessing is true for your partner, just say it. (In a kind, genuinely curious, and non-judgemental or accusatory way).
If you just take your best guess and then stop talking, something interesting might happen. Your partner might say….”Yeah. That is how I feel.” And even more amazingly, your tiny little bit of empathy just might make them feel safe enough with you in that moment to tell you more about how they feel, giving YOU the opportunity to do more non-reactive reflecting about how they feel. Then, before you know it, you might be having a really honest, important, connecting conversation — instead of another fight. [Listen: How to Stop a Divorce and Save Your Marriage].
This is what happens when you’re in the room with a good marriage counselor or couples therapist: They hone into each of your feelings, to help you understand each other more compassionately and in an emotionally safe way. But you don’t necessarily need to have a marriage counselor in the room with you do foster empathy and understanding in your relationship.
Try it, and see what happens. I’ll be interested to hear how it goes, if you’d like to share anything with me and your fellow readers in the comments below.
Have you ever had an argument with your partner that feels like it is going in circles? Or have you ever had a big sense of deja-vu when you and your partner argue, like you have had the same argument ten times? It is very common for couples to fall into a slump when it comes to communication and they feel like they are not getting through to each other.
In my experience as a marriage counselor, premarital counselor, and couples therapist, couples tend to express how hard it is to communicate with each other because the conversations “always” turn into arguments. But, something that may come as a surprise is that arguments are a form of communication and can be very productive if done right. In fact, if you know how to handle yourself in potentially difficult moments, you can turn a nasty argument into a productive discussion.
“Right Fighting” in Relationships
Yes, I am saying there is a right way to argue, and a wrong way. And you may be saying to yourself, “arguments are never good” or “if we are arguing, it can’t be right.” Although I agree that excessive, hurtful, and intense arguments can be a sign of discord in your relationship, I also suggest that when done right, arguments (aka, “passionate conversations”) can be an effective and productive way to improve and even enhance your relationship. So what do I mean by done “right?” Here are three steps that will help bring structure and purpose to your next disagreement with your partner.
3 Steps to Productive Conflict in Your Relationship
Step 1: Timing
Does it feel like you arguments always seem to happen at the wrong time, in the wrong place? When we have something to say we want to say it now. And it is important to get your feelings out, but think about the timing. Be aware of when your partner seems to be more available to talk. And I even suggest trying to get a read of how emotionally available your partner is too.
As intimate partners, we have a great sense of when our partner is in a good mood. It can be helpful to “test the waters” and let them know that you have something important to talk about, just to see if the time is right. I’m not saying you should sit on things or bury your feelings if the time just never seems right. But, we can all agree that trying to have an important conversation with your partner while their favorite sports team is on, or when they walk in the door mentally exhausted from work is very difficult.
Step one of having a productive discussion instead of a hurtful argument is being aware of the timing, and try to be intentional about when you bring up the “hot topics.”
Step 2: Message Received
Remember the old cell phone commercial where people in different locations were shouting, “Can you hear me now??” When a discussion has turned into a fight that is going badly, it can feel like we want to yell that at our partner sometimes. It just feels like they don’t hear us, or they don’t get it.
When couples come to me feeling unheard by their partner it tends to be related to the way they communicate feelings and how their partner receives the message. You send it, they receive it. A great way for couples to ensure they are each heard in conversations and arguments, is to check in on what you hear. When your partner is done talking, you can ask, “Is this what you mean?” Or, say, “I hear you saying this… is that right?” Carefully checking in to make sure you’re understanding your partner gives clarity, and the chance to correct each other if your wires ever get crossed.
Step 3: What now?
The last step to productive discussions is simply saying, “What now?” It is important to have a clear plan going forward after every argument. Think of it like a game plan for your relationship. When you have picked a good time, made sure the message was received correctly, and that you’ve both heard each other, say… ”what now?”
When you shift the conversation away from how you’re feeling, towards what you can each do to solve the problem or improve the situation is what ultimately makes any conflict productive. Saying “what now” allows you to brainstorm ideas, get back on the same page, and actually fix things so that you don’t have to have the same argument over and over again.
Having a clear conclusion to every argument is crucial. When we leave things open, or we don’t talk about what we are going to do moving forward, it creates a negative cycle: Sooner or later, you’re going to disappoint each other again. Even if the “what now” comes a couple days later (after you’re both feeling calmer), it is important to make sure you come back together and have a solution-focused conversation.
While arguments can feel challenging in the moment, they’re a great opportunity for you both to get your feelings and needs out in the open. Then, you can use the new information that came from your “passionate conversation” as a roadmap to make positive changes to your relationship that deepen your connection.
In fact, Harvard Medical school’s ongoing 75-year Grant Study, the longest running study of human development in history, found that the single biggest predictor of life satisfaction is not money, power, or possessions. No, the results showed that the key to happiness is, in fact, love and connection, and warm human relationships.
What’s more, further research has demonstrated that those of us in relationships live longer and experience better health, both physically and emotionally.
So why does it still feel so hard at times to relate, to communicate, to love, and to stay in love? Here are some tips to help you take care of the most important part of your life: Your relationships.
Want an Amazing Relationship? Dig a Little Deeper…
If you want a truly exceptional relationship, the place to start might be with your personal history. The first and longest relationship we experience is usually with our parents. We absorb whatever they model for us in their relationship. You could say that when I work with a couple, I actually have six people in the room with me: the couple and each partner’s parents!
For example, if one member of a couple had parents who fought all the time, they may bring a volatile, argumentative style of communication (Read: How to Handle An Angry Partner) to their current relationship. Alternatively, they may tell themselves that they want to avoid the hostility they witnessed between their parents at all costs, so they may be excessively accommodating with their own partner. (Read: How To Communicate With a Partner Who Shuts Down). Either way, by knowing our own and our partner’s history, it can help us understand and break the relational patterns we repeat over and over without even thinking, giving us more choice in how we respond to one another in the present.
Once we understand our history and its effect on who we are now, the next goal is to foster quality communication, which helps to deepen bonds and enables people to turn toward each other instead of away when things start to heat up.
Cultivating Communication That Connects: Understanding Your Feelings
The most important skill needed to communicate more effectively is to be able to locate within ourselves what is happening for us inside—our core feeling—so that we can express it. After all, it’s never about the dirty dishes in the sink (which can be annoying!), but rather what feeling lies under the experience. Maybe the feeling is disrespect, and under that a lack of caring, and under that a core belief, “I must not matter.”
Self Awareness is Key to Healthy Communication
When we understand what’s happening inside of us, and can slow down, we can use “I statements” (“I feel disrespected when you don’t help with the dishes.”) rather than “you statements” (“You always leave the dishes for me!”). Speaking with “you statements” and accusations often makes others feel attacked so they get defensive, which is a sure fire way to shut down that all-important communication.
Instead, when a statement comes from a place of feeling, from your heart, it has more impact. I suggest that my clients always address the feelings first before they dive into other matters. It can also be helpful to listen carefully and paraphrase what you heard back to your partner.
Improve Your Communication: Expert Tips To Put Into Practice Today
Let’s put this into practice and check out the two very different conversations:
You’re ignoring me again, like you always do after work! You’re so selfish! (“you statements” and accusations)
No I’m not, I just had a busy day. Sheesh, why are you always on my case? (defensiveness)
If that’s the way you feel about it, why do you even bother coming home? (escalation, denial of desire to connect)
Fine! If you don’t want me here, I’ll leave!
Boy, that didn’t go very well. Those partners are both really feeling hurt, and are having such a hard time connecting. How might they try this differently?
I’m feeling hurt because I felt ignored by you when you came home today. (“I statement,” identifying the feeling, no accusation)
You’re feeling hurt because you think I was ignoring you? Is that right? (paraphrasing)
Yes, I felt really terrible. (conflict is de-escalating)
I see. I’m so sorry, it wasn’t my intention. (addressing the hurt feelings) I’ve been feeling worried about the big budget meeting coming up. (shares a feeling also)
Oh, you were thinking about the meeting! (paraphrasing) I totally forgot about that. I know it’s a big deal, but I wonder if we can find a way to connect when you get home, because I miss you. (invitation for intimacy)
When we speak from the heart, understanding can begin, and that fosters connection. The truth is, we all want to be loved, appreciated, and valued in our relationships. However, this isn’t easy. After all, a good relationship takes work, but the rewards are tremendous: emotional balance, physical well-being, and the knowledge that we truly matter.
Sometimes the #relationshipadvice you get is just plain wrong.
That old cliche, “you should never go to bed angry” is among the worst. (Trust me, all marriage counselors worth their salt roll their eyes when they hear it). Here’s why you should actually sleep it off, and come back to it in the morning. I hope that this perspective helps you both avoid a nasty argument the next time things start to get heated.