A sign of a strong relationship is not that you never fight or argue. Disagreements and arguments are inevitable when we are emotionally invested in someone. Contrary to popular wisdom, however, fights do not have to tear us apart, but can actually serve as pathways to greater intimacy…
Couples who don’t fight can only avoid doing so by suppressing their feelings and withdrawing emotionally, and this is not a sign of a healthy relationship.
The secret to a fulfilling relationship is therefore not to avoid saying or doing things that will lead to a fight, but to be able to recover from fights when they DO happen and to learn from them.
Unfortunately some couples never revisit each person’s complaints after the fight is over. Happy to be done with the disagreement, they table their concerns, not wanting to start another argument. The result is that the issues leading to the fight never really get resolved. Instead they will simmer in the background and become the cause of new fights in the future…
The Cause of Most Fights
Most couples think that what causes them to fight is the expression of their needs and feelings (saying what they really think and feel). In most cases, however, this is not true. Fights usually happen because needs and feelings have NOT been expressed. The fight often erupts because one partner has finally had it and can’t stuff their emotions anymore.
What many couples fail to see is that having an argument is not the same as having a conversation.
When we argue we hurl out accusations. We are tired and fed up. We want our partner to feel sorry. We say things out of anger.
Of course this rarely works to our advantage, because our partner now feels attacked and stops listening to what we are saying.
Having a conversation, on the other hand, is about expressing yourself in a non-accusatory manner that will allow your partner to listen, and for both of you to feel understood.
Most couples fear revisiting the fight they had yesterday because they are afraid that it will simply restart the fight. They don’t know HOW to have a conversation about their issues that doesn’t turn into a fight.
But issues don’t go away just because we don’t talk about them. This is why it is important for any couple to have the skills to have the conversation that never took place.
The Aftermath of a Fight:
Couples therapist and researcher John Gottman has developed a step-by-step exercise couples can use to revisit their fight when they are calm and address the real issues that fuelled the fight. When these conversations happen they can strengthen a relationship and even be a source of greater intimacy between partners. They also tend to decrease the build-up of frustrations that will otherwise lead to fights in the future.
5 Steps to How to Make Up After a Fight:
Here is my own modified version of Gottman’s method for how to make up after a fight and use disagreements as a source of greater connection: Sit down when you have both calmed down and are not busy or distracted and agree to revisit what happened the day before. Each person will take turn expressing their side of the story and will follow each of the 5 steps below:
1. Identify and Share How You Felt
Yesterday you were angry, but did you really stop to think what emotions fuelled the anger or why you reacted so strongly to certain things your partner did or said? It is often the case that softer and more uncomfortable emotions are hidden underneath our self-righteous anger. Have a look at the following list of feelings, to see if any of them might have been true for you:
- not listened to
- feelings got hurt
- totally glooded
- took a complaint personally
- like you didn’t even like me
- not cared about
- I was right and you were wrong
- Both of us were partly right
- Out of control
- Righteously indignant
- Morally justified
- Unfairly picked on
- Morally outraged
- Taken for granted
- Like leaving
- Like staying and talking things through
- I was overwhelmed with emotion
- Not calm
- I had no influence
- I wanted to win this one
- My opinion didn’t even matter
- There was a lot of give and take
- I had no feelings at all
- I had no idea what I was feeling
2. Describe the series of events that led you to feel this way
Help your partner understand how you perceived the events unfolding the day before (what led up to the fight? what made you react? and how did the fight unfold?). It is important in this step to speak from your own point of view: Describe yourself and your perceptions from an objective and detached perspective, like a witness giving an account of what they observed on a crime scene. Don’t guess your partner’s intentions and don’t assign blame. Simply focus on your interactions and how you perceived or interpreted what you heard or what your partner did. Instead of saying “when you didn’t care how I felt”, say “when you walked out during our fight, it made me think you didn’t care”. In other words, focus on how YOU made sense of the events, acknowledging that another person might not have interpreted events the way you did or assigned the same meaning to them.
3. Identify and talk about sensitivities that might have been evoked and where these sensitivities might come from
This is your chance to reflect a little bit about why you might be particularly sensitive to certain feelings, fears, or beliefs. Did feeling unloved remind you of something in your childhood? Did your fear of your partner leaving, remind you of how lonely you felt as a child? Are there times in the past when you have felt similarly to how you felt in the fight? If so, why do think you react so strongly to this particular feeling? What memories do you have involving that feeling? Is there a particular story you can you tell of a time in the past when you felt that way? Help your partner understand the underlying meaning or importance of a particular thought or feeling that you are very sensitive to.
4. Validate you partner’s perspective
When one partner goes through these 3-steps, the other partner’s job is to listen, ask open-ended questions, and clarify to make sure they understand. The listener should not defend themselves, or argue against the other person, but simply try to “get” why the other person reacted how they did. Validating means conveying to your partner that you understand why they reacted the way they did. To validate your partner is not to agree that your partner is right, and you are wrong. It is simply to convey that given a similar set of circumstances, and a similar way of interpreting events, you too would feel the way your partner does. It is important for your partner to hear that you get them, even if you don’t see things their way.
5. What can You do to be Sensitive to Your partner’s Needs and Feelings in the Future?
A final step, which isn’t always necessary, is to have a conversation about what each of you might be able to do differently so as to take each other’s sensitivities and needs into account. I say it is not always necessary because when you truly understand your partner’s reactions and experiences, it naturally follows that you will be more caring towards your partner and more sensitive to their needs.
Next time you have a fight, try to follow this 5-step model of how to make up after a fight. You might discover that disagreements do not have to threaten your relationship, but can actually be a source of greater intimacy and connection.
About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a couples therapist in Houston, Texas. If you would like more insight into how to communicate more effectively with your partner, click here to get your FREE copy of “The Secrets of Happy Couples: A User’s Guide to a More Fulfilling Relationship”