Skip to main content

The Phrase That Helps Couples Heal After a Fight

Tips to survive the bad days in your relationship

“I still love him. I’m just not in love with him,” is one of the most cliché of clichés—so much so that it sounds like a cop-out. What does that even mean? What’s the difference between “love” and “in love”?

I don’t think it’s necessarily a cop-out. I believe it’s the difference between “love” and “like.”

The other day, my wife and I got into it. We were due for a fight, and we went for it. We both raged for a hot minute. Yelled across two rooms to make sure we were “heard.” She got critical. I got defensive. Typical stuff. The natural progression of a fight such as this is that one of us—usually me—will at some point start cleaning the house in a huff. This time, I made the bed. Swept the kitchen. I was unloading the dishwasher when I finally ran out of steam. This, too, is typical, and at this point, one of us—usually my wife—offers a hug. So we’ll hug. She’ll say, “I love you.” I’ll feel childish. We eventually reconcile.

But this time when she said, “I love you,” the words stung. Not because they weren’t true and not because I don’t like hearing them. It’s just that, I know my wife loves me. What I really need to know is that she likes me. I need to know that she enjoys, respects, admires, and appreciates me. And I need her to know that I enjoy, respect, admire, and appreciate her.

Maybe you’ve heard that love covers a multitude of sins? Maybe that’s the problem. The “multitude of sins” is what erodes the integrity of a relationship. You see, it’s not necessarily the gigantic betrayals that destroy a relationship but rather the little, day-after-day ones that chip away at trust. Love, however, survives more often than it doesn’t. Love is the reason couples come into my counseling office. They are in pain precisely because they love each other. And because love is so foundational and so constant, it is easy to take it for granted.

If you take a look at Dr. Gottman’s model of the Sound Relationship House, you’ll notice that the bottom three levels are all about “liking” each other. More specifically, they emphasize the kind of relational friendship that is critical to building trust and intimacy:

  • Build love maps: Know your partner’s world. Become an expert in her likes and dislikes. Listen to his stories—several times, if necessary. Know her dreams as well as her fears. Care about and remember his favorite movies and his least favorite food.
  • Turn toward instead of away: Hold hands. Answer his questions. Ask her opinion. Laugh at his jokes. Meet her eyes.
  • Share fondness and admiration: Let your partner know that you’re proud of her. Notice—out loud—his creativity, intelligence, empathy. Say: “Well done,” “You look hot,” and “Thank you.”

Because they help you build a genuine friendship with your partner, these levels lead to what Gottman calls The Positive Perspective, or Positive Sentiment Override (PSO). In the same way that a multitude of sins chips away at a relationship, PSO fortifies your friendship to help you survive those days when you’re due for a fight. PSO is essential for managing and surviving conflict.

It’s extremely important to say “I love you.” In fact, one of the early signs that a relationship is in trouble is that couples simply stop saying those words to each other. But don’t stop at “I love you.” My wife and I survived that fight the other day largely because we do still like each other. It was just one of those days. But those days can add up and start to feel overwhelming, so we decided to take it seriously, and we learned a new skill—or at least a new phrase: “I love you, and I like you.” Give it a try. Don’t assume your partner knows. Say it a lot. It might not be as obvious, but it sure helps.

(This is an excerpt, edited for Verily, from Zach Brittle’s, LMHC, new book The Relationship Alphabet. Get it today at Amazon for more great relationship advice!)