As much as we all wish it wasn’t so, fighting in relationships is inevitable. I spend a lot of time reading relationship blogs. I’ve noticed that many of them give suggestions for fighting in a more contained, respectful and loving way. As someone who helps people develop their conflict resolution skills and still sometimes loses my cool in a relationship conflict, I know how hard this can be.
It may sometimes be almost impossible to change behavior in the middle of a fight.
For most of us, our romantic relationships are the place where we feel the most emotionally connected to another person. When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable in this way, any real or perceived betrayal of trust, no matter how small, can feel tremendously threatening. When our partner criticizes even a small characteristic or behavior, it can activate our fear of loss and come to represent a much bigger threat. When we are threatened, our natural survival response is to fight, flee, or freeze. As Dan Seigel explains in this video, when we are in survival mode, the rational, problem-solving, and empathetic part of our brain is inaccessible. We may not even realize we are saying and doing things we will later regret. Alternately, we may turn our back on our partner’s distress, because we don’t feel able to deal with their disapproval or upset. While most people genuinely want to be their best in a conflict with someone they love, in that moment of survival, it may not always be possible to pick the response that will be the most loving. And as we will discuss, that is sometimes OK.
Fighting isn’t necessarily the problem.
While fighting feels horrible and can sometimes lead to relationship problems, it can also sometimes lead to positive changes and greater connection in a relationship. Fighting can be an important way to identify what both people care about, clarify misunderstandings, and strengthen a connection.
Any people who depend on each other for emotional support and security will sometimes have perspectives, needs, hopes, beliefs, and values that conflict with each other. When we ignore those differences – when we don’t air them out when necessary – they can fester and grow in significance. This is when they will often come out in subtle, sarcastic, or passive aggressive ways. Unaddressed conflict can lead us to constantly criticize small behaviors, think mostly about negatives, or even shut down emotionally. Generally in a healthy relationship, it is better to find a way to talk about the underlying concern, even if it may involve some fighting.
That being said, it is important to also be aware of each person’s different expectations and experiences of conflict (for more information check out my blog on anger). We all grew up with different norms, experiences, and skills related to fighting. While yelling and storming around may feel normal, natural, and healthy to one person, it may be experienced as scary, overwhelming, and even traumatizing to their partner. When thinking about how to air underlying concerns, it’s important to know your partner and to know what they can or can’t tolerate. If your conflict styles don’t always work well together, it may be necessary to work together to develop a third style that works for your relationship. It is still very important to air out the underlying issues, but it may take some dedication, and possibly some help from a therapist to find what works for your relationship.
The relationship repair that happens after a fight is the most important.
When we fight with someone we love, it can feel like something essential has broken, like we might never get the feeling of safety and connection back that we so desperately want. By taking the brave step to repair that break, to reach out and reconnect, it’s possible to turn the pain and fear of a fight into something even better than what was before.
Some things that help to repair a relationship after a fight are to:
Apologize if necessary, and if you can do it genuinely. A heartfelt apology can do amazing things. The most effective apologies 1) demonstrate awareness of any harm that may have been caused, and 2) offer a clear idea of how such harm will be avoided in the future.
Remember and reaffirm all of the ways that you are on the same team. No matter how angry you may be, remember the reasons you are important to each other. Remember the ways that you support and love each other. How do you help each other be your best selves? What are your shared values? What are your shared hopes, plans, and projects? Remind yourselves and each other that you are in this together.
Reach out to connect in a way that feels loving and meaningful to you and your partner. Think about what helps you feel connected. Do you like to watch movies or go dancing together? Maybe it’s giving flowers or gifts. Maybe it’s helping each other with an important task. Once things feel calmer, make the time to do that thing that helps you connect.
Be explicit about all the things you appreciate about your partner. If you tend to pay attention to things that annoy or frustrate you, try to shift your perspective to notice the small things that you appreciate about them. And don’t just think about it, tell your partner what you appreciate about them and the relationship.
Don’t forget about physical intimacy. This doesn’t mean you need to feel ready to jump into bed right after a fight. A touch, hug, hand squeeze, cuddle, kiss, or even loving eye contact can go a long way toward healing a rift.
And most importantly …
Listen more carefully and deeply than you want to or think you should have to.
Deep and caring listening is the key to relationship repair. When we’ve been with someone for a while, it becomes easy to assume we know what’s going on. An unchecked assumption can be dangerous in a fight, because when we are wrong, that assumption can actually increase the distance.
Try to listen to what they are really saying underneath the words. What are they feeling? What are they needing? Listen for what is motivating your partner to do that thing that drives you nuts. Listen for what they are valuing and what is important to them. Double and triple check that you really understand. Mirror back what you hear to make sure you have got it right. Ask questions if you don’t understand. Validate and affirm what they are saying, and what they are not saying. If you disagree with what they are saying, try to affirm the need or value that is underneath it. When you listen deeply enough, you can sometimes identify what your partner needs to hear from you to be reassured that you are committed to working it out. When two people can do this for each other, it can go beyond healing the fight. It can make new levels of intimacy possible.
Some last thoughts …
Developing healthier and more loving ways to fight can be a long and difficult process. If you are feeling in despair or stuck in a pattern you don't understand, it can be very helpful to seek some help. For self-help resources for couples, check out these resources here, here, and here. If that doesn’t feel like enough, or you prefer to get some support, it might be time to reach out to a couple’s therapist in your area.
Finally, this blog does not apply to abusive relationships. In abusive situations, it is more important to protect your safety than to repair the relationship after a fight. If you are concerned that your relationship might be emotionally abusive or controlling, reach out to organizations in your area that support people dealing with abuse. For resources in Toronto, visit here and here.