Your adrenaline is pumping, your face is boiling, and the room is drenched in both anger and sadness. So many regrettable things have been said, and now, post-fight, you're lost.
You now might be wondering: How can you get back to normal after the fumes? How do we repair this damage?
If you're like most couples, you might not even remember why the fight began—which means the topic of the original argument became irrelevant, and you spent a bunch of wasted time arguing about the fact that you were arguing. If that sounds like you, don’t fret. It’s a thing. Actually, the number one thing that couples argue about is “nothing," which is either reassuring or discouraging, depending on how you look at it.
But actually, trying to figure out how the fight began is not the best place to start. As a therapist, my main question for couples is not about the beginning, or even the middle. Rather, I ask: “How does it end?”
If there are a hundred conflicts among a hundred couples, there are probably ten thousand ways that those conflicts could end. However, most of them are delay tactics, designed to facilitate peace but not maintain a connection. In these cases, the strategy is ultimately fruitless—and if anything, only causes disconnect, and therefore, more dissonance.
For couples who really want to repair after a fight, the end should always be a striving for connection. Every "good" conflict should eventually answer this question: How do we stay connected?
So how, do you do that? How do you achieve deeper understanding and connection? There are two key steps: De-escalate and Repair.
Step One: De-escalate
Your first priority is to de-escalate. When the music's too loud, you turn it down. When the treadmill is too fast, you turn it down. When the water is too hot, you turn it down. This is common sense. When your conflict gets too escalated, you have to find a way to turn it down.
To do this, it's a good idea to agree on a plan—be it a signal or a strategy. Some couples have a safe-word. Some have a hand signal. Some ask for a time-out or they “press pause." Some focus on deep breathing. Some take turns being the bigger person. I know of one couple—who loved football—that used yellow penalty flags to signal when the fight had gotten out of hand. So go ahead, make it yours. Honestly, it doesn't matter what strategy you use, it only matters that you have one that you agree on and that you use it, as you simply cannot achieve deeper understanding or connection while the conflict is escalated. It’s just not possible.
Once you’ve turned it down, the second step is repair, but this may not be achievable right away. You may need to watch a sitcom. Or go to work. Or go to sleep (yes, that old advice to never go to bed angry won't work if you're exhausted). Or take a walk—or some kind of breather. You must have confidence in the de-escalation before repair is conceivable.
Step Two: Repair
For relationships, repair is actually synonymous with agreement—an agreement about how the conflict started and about where it went wrong. It's an understanding of why you both felt the way you did, and what you both could have done to correct it. If the middle of a conflict is the struggle, repair is re-visiting the struggle and talking the ways out.
Repair might mean apologizing—but not necessarily. Ultimately, repair is about re-pairing. It’s about prioritizing connection and understanding. If you’re finding that difficult, try saying: “Help me understand.” Or, “How can we use this conflict to stay connected?”
I know, that sounds difficult, and maybe even feel inauthentic, but if you want to change your relationship and make these fights productive, you need to change the way you relate. That means if you want to change the way your conflict begins, and continues, and ends, then you need to change the way you think about conflict. It requires a bit of a mind shift.
Both parties involved believe their argument to be valid. After all, that’s why you defend it so vigorously. But in reality, your belief doesn't actually make your argument 100% valid. So take a step back, and ask yourself: What if you also considered your partner’s position to be valid, too? What if you prioritized connection and understanding over winning?
Ultimately, if you are able to recognize when a conflict becomes a fight, and you both are committed to de-escalating it, the fight ultimately becomes about repair. And suddenly, fights become a lot less terrifying.
And, wouldn't that be a treat?
So, if you love your partner, don't wait. Decide (and agree) that this will be your mantra for all future conflicts: The main purpose of any fight is to find deeper understanding and connection.
Zach Brittle is a Certified Gottman Therapist and works closely with The Gottman Institute. He recently started his podcast with therapist Laura Heck called Marriage Therapy Radio, downloadable on iTunes, or check out his website at ForBetter.us. If there’s anything you wish they’d discuss in their new podcast, email them here: email@example.com