Do you remember the first fight you had with your partner? More than likely, you felt exhausted, disheartened, and maybe even a little frightened. Maybe you felt like all was lost. Started to question why you chose them as your partner. Perhaps you started to wonder if you’d ever find happiness. If you even know how to. If you even deserve it.
Fights happen in every relationship, and the bad ones are especially hard to deal with and process. Maybe you said things you didn't mean, or you felt or thought things that you know aren't true. When you are in the moment of heightened emotions, you are bound to say or do the wrong thing - that's why the aftermath of a fight is so important. What you do to repair the relationship and learn from the fight will determine the success and happiness of your marriage.
Processing after a fight can give you the opportunity to learn, grow, and prevent problems in the future. Processing means that you can talk about the incident without getting back into it. This needs to be a conversation, as if you were both discussing a movie you just saw. It requires calm and some emotional distancing from the incident.
Before you begin, remember that the goal of processing the fight is greater understanding. So first, make sure you are both calm. Know what you can do to soothe yourself. Maybe you need to go for a walk, take a bath, or do some yoga or relaxing meditation. Whatever it is you do that brings you peace and comfort, do this before you start discussing the regrettable incident.
Once you are both calm and committed to having a conversation about the fight, you can follow the steps below to process the incident without getting back into the fight (adapted from Gottman & Gottman).
Share how you felt. Do not say why you felt that way. Avoid commenting on your partner's feelings. Were you feeling defensive? Did your feelings get hurt? Were you feeling lonely, ashamed, unloved, misunderstood, criticized? Did you just want to win? Did you have any feelings at all, or could you not even understand your feelings?
Describe your reality, how you perceived the argument. Take turns. Summarize and validate at least a part of your partner's reality.
1. We all see things differently, so the point of this exercise if for you to describe what you believe happened during the argument. Take turns describing your perceptions, your own reality of what happened during the fight. Describe yourself and your perceptions. Don't describe your partner. Avoid attacking or blaming. Describe your perceptions like a reporter, like an objective observation. Say, "I heard you saying", rather than, "You said".
2. Summarize and validate your partner's reality by saying something like, "It makes sense to me how you saw this and what your perceptions and needs were. I get it." Use empathy by saying something like, "I can see why this upset you." Validation doesn't mean you agree, only that you understand a part of your partner's reality of the incident.
3. Do both partner's feel understood? If yes, then move on to the next step. If not, ask "What do I need to know to understand your perspective better?"
Share what experiences or memories you've had that might have escalated the interaction, and the stories of why these are triggers for you. As you think about your history or childhood, is there a story you remember that relates to what got triggered in you? Your partner needs to know so that they can be more sensitive to your triggers. They could be things such as, "I felt judged", "I felt ashamed", "I felt criticized", or "I felt powerless". Our histories shape our present interactions and we need to be aware of what our triggers are and sensitive to our partner's triggers.
Take responsibility. Acknowledge your own role in contributing to the fight. Share how you set yourself up to get into this conflict. Read what is true from the list below:
- I've been stressed and irritable lately.
- I haven't expressed much appreciation toward you lately.
- I've taken you for granted.
- I've been overly sensitive lately.
- I've been overly critical lately.
- I haven't shared much of my inner wold with you.
- I've not been emotionally available.
- I've needed some time alone.
- I haven't asked for what I have needed lately.
- I've been depressed lately.
Next, state what you specifically regret and what your contribution to this fight was.
What do you wish to apologize for? You could say that I'm sorry:
- I overreacted.
- I was really grumpy.
- I was defensive.
- I was so negative.
- I attacked you.
- I didn't listen to you.
- I wasn't respectful.
- I was unreasonable.
Finally, if you accept your partner's apology, say so. If not, say what you still need.
Make constructive plans for what you can both do differently next time in order to avoid an incident like this happening again.
Share one thing your partner can do to make a discussion of this issue better next time. It is important for you both to remain calm as you do this.
Then, while it is still your turn, share one thing you can do to make it better next time.
What do you need to do to be able to put this behind you and move on? Be as agreeable as possible to the plan suggested by your partner.
Many fights are about failures of emotional connections. Processing these regrettable incidents not only helps with conflict management, it also aids in building the friendship and intimacy connection.
Jennifer Tougaw is a couples counselor in Denver, Colorado. She helps couples reconnect and change the way they move through time together.