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Manage Conflict: The Aftermath of a Fight

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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When one or both partners feel hurt, frustrated, or angry after a fight, wouldn’t it be nice to just hit a restart button? Unfortunately, you can’t erase an argument from your memory. However, you can take steps to repair it and move forward. When arguments happen, it’s easy to say or do the wrong thing and hurt 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.

Talk About It

The key in processing a fight is to first talk about what happened to understand what went wrong, how you each felt, and what could have prevented it from ending in a negative way. If you take these steps, you may emerge with new knowledge of your partner and a new understanding of how your relationship works.

Processing a fight means talking about what happened without jumping back into the argument. You can use the following format to understand each other better. 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 accept responsibility and find your points of compromise so that you can move forward together.

Step 1: Each partner has a turn to talk about what they felt

You can use words such as:

  • 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

Talk about how you each saw the situation, remembering that neither of your perspectives is “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 their perspective. Dr. John Gottman’s research demonstrates that you can only be influential if you accept influence.

Validation responses can sound like:

  • “I can understand how you felt that way.”
  • “It sounds like you were very upset and hurt by what I said.”
  • “I didn’t know that’s how I came off.”
  • (Reflect what they said) “So, when I raised my voice, that made you feel attacked.”

Step 3: Accept responsibility. What role did you play in this fight?

What set me up was…

  • “I’ve been very stressed lately.”
  • “I can see that I’ve taken you for granted.”
  • “I know I’ve been overly critical lately.”
  • “I haven’t been emotionally available.”
  • “I’ve been depressed lately.”
  • “I didn’t ask for what I needed.”
  • “I’ve been running on empty.”

You cannot always prevent yourself from making mistakes or saying the wrong thing, but you can go back and make attempts to repair the situation.

Final thought

When couples make a habit of engaging in destructive arguments without processing or trying to understand their partner’s side, the conflicts build on each other until they become unmanageable and overwhelming. Don’t let a regrettable incident grow into an unnecessary catastrophe. Take your arguments as an opportunity to learn more about each other. You will create a more productive and positive outcome.

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Ellie Lisitsa is a former staff writer at The Gottman Institute. She holds a PhD in Clinical Psychology.

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