Tag Archives: couples conflicts

Relationships: How to Make Up After a Fight (and Learn From It)

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:

I felt…

  1. defensive
  2. not listened to
  3. feelings got hurt
  4. totally glooded
  5. angry
  6. sad
  7. unloved
  8. misunderstood
  9. criticized
  10. took a complaint personally
  11. like you didn’t even like me
  12. not cared about
  13. worried
  14. afraid
  15. unsafe
  16. tense
  17. I was right and you were wrong
  18. Both of us were partly right
  19. Out of control
  20. Frustrated
  21. Righteously indignant
  22. Morally justified
  23. Unfairly picked on
  24. Unappreciated
  25. Disliked
  26. Unattractive
  27. Stupid
  28. Morally outraged
  29. Taken for granted
  30. Like leaving
  31. Like staying and talking things through
  32. I was overwhelmed with emotion
  33. Not calm
  34. Stubborn
  35. Powerless
  36. I had no influence
  37. I wanted to win this one
  38. My opinion didn’t even matter
  39. There was a lot of give and take
  40. I had no feelings at all
  41. I had no idea what I was feeling
  42. Lonely
  43. Alienated
  44. Ashamed
  45. Guilty
  46. Culpable
  47. Abandoned
  48. Disloyal
  49. Exhausted
  50. Foolish
  51. Overwhelmed
  52. Remorseful
  53. Shocked
  54. Tired

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”

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5 Easy Ways to Improve Communication in Your Relationship

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How to Stop Arguing and Start Communicating:

Most couples arguments are like rituals. Every now and then when each partner has bottled things up long enough, a fight will erupt and fury will be unleashed. These kinds of fights can often be cathartic, but they rarely if ever solve anything.

Why? Because when one partner is dishing out, the other is busy preparing a come-back. The result is that aggression by the one, leads to aggression by the other. Insult gets rebutted with insult, and no real constructive change comes out of it.

Wouldn’t it be great, however, if the things you complain about could actually get resolved? And wouldn’t it be nice if your partner would feel understood to the point where he or she no longer keeps criticizing you about the same old issues?

Here are my 5 easy to implement communication skills that will help you get your point across and improve your relationship…

1.    Stick with the Facts

One of the surest ways to get your partner’s anger boiling is to label their actions using your own choice phrases. Nouns and adjectives used to describe the other person will often make them feel judged and ready to rebuff. Calling someone “inconsiderate” is different from pointing out what the other person did that felt inconsiderate to YOU. You will usually obtain a much better response from your loved one, if you simply describe the situation at hand. Recount  the other person’s actions without attributing evil motivations or categorizing these actions as good or bad.  “When you took 30 minutes to get ready this morning, it made us late for work” is quite different from saying “You are always late in the morning and it’s very inconsiderate”.

2.    Use “I feel…”

It is  common nowadays to make fun of the therapist who helps couples communicate better by having each partner rephrase their criticism with the opening statement: “I feel…” Nevertheless, when done right, it is exceedingly difficult to argue against another person’s feelings. Rephrasing your criticism in terms of how something made you feel, removes the focus from the wrong-doings of your partner, and puts focus instead on your own perceptions and experiences. For example, saying “When you entered the house without saying hello to me, I felt disappointed and started to think that you don’t really care about me”, invites a quite different response than: “Why did you not say hello when you came home today; you obviously don’t care!” The focus here is really not so much on using the phrase “I feel”, as it is about qualifying your annoyance as a result of how you viewed the situation rather than the objective wrongness of the other person.

3.    Ask for what you want – not for what you don’t want

One thing that is exceedingly difficult for people in relationships is to express what they want rather than what they don’t want. It is quite easy to notice what we don’t want. Our feelings often alert us when someone has overstepped a boundary or acted in a way that we consider unacceptable. However, underneath every complaint lies an unexpressed wish. Instead of saying, “I don’t want you to stay out late with your friends all the time: When are you ever going to spend time with me?”, it might be better to say: “I really wish we could spend more time together. What do you say we arrange a date night?” In the first example, it is easy for your partner to think they are being criticized and being told what to do. In the second example, it is a lot more difficult to feel defensive. Here what you are really expressing is that you value something about your partner, and who can really get annoyed about that?

4.    Be Fair in Your Assessment

When you get angry or upset, it is easy to build a case in your mind for why you are justified in being angry or upset. Oftentimes this can lead you to make totalitarian statements that are almost always wrong. Saying things like “you ALWAYS go and watch TV without helping me with dinner”, is probably not entirely accurate. Because terms like ALWAYS and NEVER are almost always NOT true, your partner is likely to feel misjudged when you use them. Now instead of addressing the real issue, the conversation will more than likely become about the fairness of your judgment. “Don’t you remember that I cooked dinner for you the other day?!” So BE fair. It is the best way to make sure your partner will be able to hear your issue.

5.    Become a Good Listener

When your partner brings up a concern they have about you, it is easy to become defensive. Instead of hearing what your partner’s concern is, it is tempting to instead think of a reason why your partner is wrong, or to return the insult by blaming your partner for something as well. Instead of doing this, try to really understand what your partner is feeling unhappy about. Set aside your own complaints for a moment and become curious about how your partner really views the world. Why is going out more often important to him? Why does spending money on frivolous things annoy her? Do you really know what meaning he or she attributes to these events? Try to ask questions until you can repeat back to your partner exactly why it is they feel dissatisfied. If you model this behavior, likelihood is that your partner will feel really understood, and will return the favor next time… 

About me: I am a couples therapist in Houston, Texas. For more information about couples therapy, please visit my website.

Couples Therapy: Why Arguing Might Help Your Relationship…

Why Couples May Not Argue Enough…

At first glance it might seem that one of the major reasons couples decide to pursue couples counseling is that they fight too much. Ironically, however, the fights couples engage in are often the result of a determination by both partners not to fight. In fact, many couples do not feel completely safe to express their complaints, and feel rather timid, guilty, or ashamed about stating their own needs and desires. Rather than voicing their complaints to each other, they therefore instead try to suppress them.

When both partners have held in their private desires and wishes for too long, however, a fight eventually erupts, but these kinds of fights are the “symptoms” and not the “problem”. In fact, we might say that couples need to fight more – not less – or that they need to develop greater comfort expressing their complaints to each other on an on-going basis.

The Double Bind of the Unhappy Couple…

Let’s look at an example of a typical couples interaction to illustrate the point:

Jane dislikes her neediness and tries to curtail her natural desire to spend more time with Tom. She really wants to ask Tom to take her out more often and spend more time talking with her. However, knowing that Tom feels threatened by such demands, and questioning her own right to feel this way, Jane tries her best to give Tom his alone time. Yet the more Jane suppresses her feelings, the more resentful she starts to feel, and she now instead picks fights with Tom about not doing his part of the household chores, or makes belittling remarks about his work projects.

In the mean time, Jane gets absolutely no credit for her effort to give Tom his space. Because of her periodic outbursts and her subtle criticisms, Tom knows her encouragement of his alone time is really just pretense, and so all her good efforts are ultimately in vain.

Tom on the other hand feels guilty for his desire to spend time alone so he forces himself to spend more time with Jane. Jane, however, notices the forced nature of Tom’s half-hearted invitations to go out for dinner, or the rote manner in which he brings her flowers, so Tom gets no credit for this either. Instead, he ends up feeling that he is “damned if I do, and damned if I don’t”. This impossible bind is bound to lead to anxiety and ultimately result in an angry demand for more alone time. However, Jane now feels pushed away and has confirmation of her greatest fear which is that “Tom really doesn’t care…”

Compromising is Not the Solution…

In the name of compromise, and in order to please each other, both Tom and Jane are stuck in a lose-lose cycle. They settle for less than what they really want. And yet in exchange for their plea deal, they do not really get the peace they bargained for. Instead they end up feeling both unsatisfied and unappreciated.

The problem is not Jane’s desire to spend more time with Tom or Tom’s desire for more time alone. The problem is that both Jane and Tom are too timid and too inhibited to express their immediate desires to each other and to examine what is really underneath them.

Instead of arguing about roses that are two days too late, or acceptance of independence that is always only temporary, Tom and Jane need to be able to have a talk about what they really want. They need to develop a relationship where there is room for all their feelings, also the one’s that at first glance seem irrational, childish, shameful, or vulnerable. If they are able to talk about their differences in such a mutually accepting way, both Tom and Jane can feel more secure with each other, and more known for who they really are.

And then, as it so often happens in the absurd theatre of life, they may discover that the conflict between them loses its stronghold. Tom, now free to be himself and to express his true feelings, discovers that he actually likes to spend more time with Jane, and Jane, now feeling understood at a deeper level, discovers that she no longer needs to cling to Tom in order to feel connected.

And so it is that when we stop trying to force a solution to our problems, and instead focus on understanding what the problem is really about, the problem is free to morph into something else and to bring about its own resolution…

About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a couples therapist in Houston, Texas. If you would like to read more about this topic, I warmly recommend this classic couples therapy book by Dan Wile. You can also visit my own website for more information about the couples therapy process.