Transforming a Fight into an Opportunity to Rebuild Intimacy

couples therapy

Lindsay and Ben sat in my office with arms crossed and jaws clenched.  Lindsay sighed as she began with her update for the week, “we had a bad night,” she explained without even looking at Ben.  Ben remained silent, staring at the carpet.

Lindsay and Ben are at that fragile moment after a fight when they have the choice to walk down one of two paths.

  1. They continue stewing about their argument and feeding their righteous indignation at the other person’s perceived wrongs.
  2. They make an attempt to understand their partner and talk about the situation differently.

Option number one is a recipe for ongoing feelings of hurt which over time can erode intimacy and friendship.  They were coming to couples therapy already in a tough place.  But even the healthiest and happiest couples have arguments that require processing or talking about.  Option number two begins a process of healing which turns conflict into an opportunity to actually build intimacy.

Before attempting this process of repairing from a fight, you both must agree on these points:

  • The GOAL is to better understand each person’s experience, NOT to solve the disagreement. You will talk about HOW you argued without getting back into the fight.
  • Both people need to feel calm. So wait until you have each had time to self-soothe and soften your heart a bit.
  • Each person’s perception of reality is valid. Don’t get stuck disputing facts.

I asked Lindsay and Ben if they wanted to try repairing this fight.  They both nodded silently and we took a few moments to review their strategies to self-soothe a bit so they could listen with an open heart.  For them this just meant taking a deep breath and looking one another in the eyes for a moment.  We then began working through the steps of repair.

Step 1: Feelings

Takes turns sharing how you felt without saying why.  Many people struggle to find the right words to represent how they felt, so be patient.  Some common feelings might be

  • Hurt                            – Tense                                                 – Outraged
  • Angry                         – Frustrated                                      – Ashamed
  • Worried                    – Rejected                                          – Misunderstood
  • Unappreciated     – Overwhelmed                              – Criticized

Step 2: Realities

Take turns describing your own perception of what happened during the argument, describing only what you saw, heard, and felt.  Avoid attack or blame or mind-reading for your partner.  Talk about what you might have needed from your partner.

Summarize and validate your partner’s feelings and reality until both partners feel understood.  Validating does not mean that you agree, it simply shows that you understand even part of your partner’s experience of the event.  Some ways you might express this include the following statements:

  • “I can see why that upset you.”
  • “It makes sense to me why you saw it that way.”
  • “I can understand what your needs were.”

Step 3: Triggers

Take a moment to think about what might have set the stage for your reaction during the argument.  See if you recall similar feelings begin triggered in the past. Share with your partner how your history or your state of mind that day may have contributed to the argument.  And validate one another’s triggers which help you understand his/her point of view or state of mind.

Examples of triggers:

  • I felt judged, and I’ve always been sensitive to that.
  • I felt criticized, and I’m sensitive to that.
  • Partners in my past have treated me that way.
  • My parents always treated me that way.

Step 4: Take Responsibility

Under ideal conditions, you could probably recognize ways you could have handled the situation better.  Think about what set you up for miscommunication during this argument and share this with your partner.

Some common things that might have set you up:

  • I’ve been stressed and irritable lately.
  • I haven’t expressed much appreciation toward you recently.
  • I’ve been overly critical.
  • I have not been emotionally available.
  • I’ve been depressed lately.
  • I’ve not been asking for what I need.
  • I’ve been preoccupied.
  • I haven’t made time for us.

Make sure to verbalize what you regret about your role in the fight and what you wish to apologize for.

I’m sorry that:

  • I over-reacted.
  • I was so defensive.
  • I didn’t listen to you.
  • I was unreasonable.

Step 5: Constructive Plans

Share one thing your partner could do to make your discussions of this issue better in the future.  Share also what you can do to improve communication next time.  Identify if there’s anything either of you need to do to put this argument behind you and move on.  Try to be as agreeable as possible to plans your partner suggests.

Using these steps Lindsay and Ben were able to talk about their argument with more understanding and openness.  They felt closer after the discussion, even if they had not resolved the argument itself.

Written by Suzanne J. Smith, Ph.D. for Linden BP  with principles from The Gottman Institute’s Aftermath of a Fight.  If you are interested in receiving Linden Blog updates with original articles about parenting, families, mental health, and wellness, subscribe using the field below.