The Aftermath of a Fight

Let’s go over what to do in the aftermath of a fight or “regrettable incident.” If you would like to recap our 6 Skills of Conflict Management mini-series, you can do so now:

  1. Soften Startup
  2. Accept Influence
  3. Make Effective Repairs During Conflict
  4. De-escalate
  5. Psychological Soothing of Self and Partner
  6. Compromise

When one or both partners are left feeling hurt, frustrated, or angry after a fight, wouldn’t it be nice if you could just hit a restart button? Unfortunately, you can’t erase an argument from your memory, but you can take steps to repair and move forward. Arguments happen, and often enough we say the wrong thing, or do the wrong thing, and end up hurting one another. One of the most important tools for building a healthy relationship is knowing how to process a fight in a way that helps you learn from it.

The key in processing a fight is to first talk about what happened to understand what went wrong, how you each were feeling, and what could have prevented the combative discussion from ending in such in a negative way. If these steps are taken, you may emerge from what was initially an incredibly stressful interaction with new knowledge of your partner, and a new understanding of how to make your relationship work better in the future!

In the aftermath of a fight or regrettable incident, you can use the following format to increase understanding between you and your partner. It is crucial for you to understand that in any given argument there is no absolute “reality” as to what happened. There are always two “subjective realities” or perspectives. It is never a matter of who is right and who is wrong, but how the two of you can come to understand each other, accept responsibility, and find your points of compromise so that you can move forward together.

Processing a fight means talking about what happened without jumping back into the argument. Focus on finding ways to understand why the conversation was so unproductive as well as how to make this type of interaction better in the future. Try to make it your job to understand your partner’s reality and not to argue for your own perspective.

Step 1: Each Partner has a Turn to Talk About What They Were Feeling

I Felt…

  • Defensive
  • Not listened to
  • My feelings got hurt
  • Totally flooded
  • Angry
  • Sad
  • Unloved
  • Misunderstood
  • Criticized
  • That my complaint was taken personally
  • Worried
  • Afraid
  • Unsafe
  • Out of control
  • Righteously indignant
  • Unfairly picked on
  • Stupid
  • Like leaving
  • Overwhelmed with emotion
  • Lonely
  • Ashamed

Step 2: Discuss and Validate Both Subjective Realties 

Take turns to talk about how you each saw the situation, remember that neither of your perspectives are “wrong!” Focus on each of your feelings and needs. It is crucial that you validate your partner’s experience and communicate that you understand at least some of his or her perspective. As we said in our blog entries last week, Dr. Gottman’s research has demonstrated that you can only be influential if you accept influence.

Step 3: Accept Responsibility – What Role Did You Play in this Fight?

What Set Me Up…

  • I’ve been very stressed and irritable lately
  • I’ve taken you for granted
  • I’ve been overly sensitive lately
  • I’ve been overly critical lately
  • I haven’t shared very much of my inner world
  • I haven’t been emotionally available
  • I’ve been depressed lately
  • I haven’t asked for what I needed
  • I haven’t felt very much confidence in myself
  • I’ve been running on empty
  • I’ve needed to be alone

We cannot always prevent ourselves from making mistakes or saying things that we shouldn’t have, but we always have the ability to go back and make attempts to repair the situation. When couples make a habit of engaging in destructive arguments without processing or trying to understand their partner’s side of things, the conflicts build on each other until they become unmanageable and overwhelming. Don’t let a regrettable incident grow into an unnecessary catastrophe! When you make repair attempts early, you can salvage the point of the conversation and create a more productive and positive outcome.

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Ellie Lisitsa is a former staff writer at The Gottman Institute and editor for The Gottman Relationship Blog.