We’ve all been there. 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 too. So I understand what this feels like.
I also know (now) that intense fights are not necessary. Fighting is not a productive or effective way to solve the issues in your relationship. However, what is much more important than whether or not fights happen is how they end. When you can come back together afterwards to solve problems together, your relationship is strengthened as a result. Here’s how to reconnect…
The Anatomy of a Fight
To mend a fight, you first need to understand what made it so awful in the first place. It doesn’t even matter what started it — 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 it goes badly.
You try to say how you feel — reasonably, and with good intentions — but somehow it quickly disintegrates. You get triggered. They get triggered. 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 [Read: How to Communicate With a Withdrawn Partner].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.
We actually know, from research, that when people got 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?”
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.
Four Tips To Get Back on Track After a Terrible Fight
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 need 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, or at least a wry smile and a hug. 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 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. At the very least, your setting a good example 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, 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, 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