Conflict is often inevitable. And in our worst moments, even minor miscommunications can trigger full-blown arguments.
But the thing about fighting (in an otherwise healthy relationship) is that – as frustrating as it may feel when it's actually happening – if handled the right way, the resolution can actually bring you closer. In fact, learning to navigate the post-fight process can set you up to bounce back stronger than ever, every time.
Here are seven steps to help you diffuse, reconcile, and move forward in the wake of a big fight with your partner.
1. Immediately after – or during – the fight, take an intentional "timeout"
Trying to resolve an argument when you’re both feeling emotionally charged is risky – and oftentimes, actually causes further damage.
To avoid causing additional heat-of-the-moment hurt, give both of yourselves permission to step away to give each other time and breathing room. Even something as simple as stepping away for a glass of water or practicing a calming breathing exercise can help you gather your thoughts and return more quickly to an emotionally neutral state.
Some couples find it helpful to have a plan in place for arguments – like an agreement that it’s okay to leave a heated situation, in order to prevent it from escalating. Others might schedule a time a few days later to revisit the conversation, once emotions have cooled. The important thing is to wait until you are both calm and ready to broach the matter objectively.
2. When the time is right, extend an olive branch
After you’ve both cooled down, try not to hang on to feelings of anger and hurt. This will only cause you more suffering, and risk further harm to your relationship. So when the time is right, consider offering an apology (or an "olive branch," so to speak).
Note that being the first to apologize doesn’t have to mean you’re taking sole responsibility for the argument. Rather, an apology is acknowledging that you have both been hurt; you still care and are there for your partner; and you do want to heal from the argument.
You can extend the olive branch with:
- A verbal apology about the fight itself (“I’m sorry I misunderstood what you meant” or “I’m sorry I brought [topic] up in our fight”).
- A physical nudge of warmth, like a hug.
- A small, but encouraging, invitation to talk, like handing your partner their favorite snack.
Doing so can thaw the tension and set you up for a more productive recovery conversation.
3. Actively listen to your partner’s perspective, and acknowledge any hurt you caused
So often, when in the midst of a fight, we’re trying so hard to get our own point across that we essentially forget about the other person’s side.
When you’re both in a more rational place, now’s the time to listen to what your partner has to say. Show them that you hear them by practicing reflective listening:
- Try repeating what you hear them say back to them: Even a simple statement like “It sounds like you felt hurt when I spoke over you” can be a validating statement when your partner is upset.
- Acknowledge their pain: If you still disagree with the other person's perspective, you can acknowledge their hurt and perspective through a statement like "I'm sorry [topic] made you feel this way."
While it can be difficult to hear your partner speak about your role in an argument, now’s not the time to play defense.
4. Share your side – without pointing fingers
When it’s your turn to share your perspective in the argument, avoid focusing on blame – and instead, present your worries in a neutral manner.
While the specifics of your argument will vary based on the situation, here are some pointers for sharing your side in a blame-free way:
- Avoid starting a statement with “you always.” Instead of, for example, saying “you always leave the kitchen such a mess,” try “I’ve had a really stressful week at work and would love to come home to a clean kitchen. Would you mind putting the dishes in the dishwasher?”
- Start statements with “I,” not “you.” “You statements” – such as “You just spend and don’t think about the financial repercussions” – imply blame, and often trigger a defensive reaction. Lessen the blame game by turning them into “I statements,” like “I get nervous when I see big charges that I don’t recognize on our accounts; I want to make sure we’re both on the same page about savings.”
5. When things have definitely calmed down, return to the root of the issue
Once you’ve both returned to a calmer state, try to unearth what was really going on that made one, or both of you, so heated.
For example, if it’s a fight about the dishes, is it really about the dishes? Or is it about an underlying resentment you feel because it seems that you carry a disproportionate share of the housework? Perhaps it goes even deeper, by reminding you of your parents' relationship dynamic that you are worried about emulating.
It’s important to identify and problem-solve the underlying issue; this is what prevents the same argument from escalating again.
You’re more likely to reach a solution or middle ground much faster when you’re both feeling rational, so make sure you’ve both had adequate breathing room.
6. Work together to find a practical solution
Once you’ve both given each other space to air out your respective worries, and feel heard and understood by one another, try to work together towards forming a practical solution.
Take the issue of jealousy, for example. If you feel insecure in your relationship, and alarmed by the “threat” that others pose to it, you may start to recognize a pattern of controlling behavior in yourself. You may always want your partner to yourself, or expect them to treat you with extra special care in a group setting (and get frustrated when they don’t live up to those expectations).
While those patterns won’t disappear overnight, there are small gestures you, or your, partner can make to make each other feel more secure, such as showing extra affection in situations that might trigger jealous anxiety; or listening to each others' perspective wholly, rather than immediately rushing to act defensive.
Sometimes, communicating and working together with a team mentality can loosen the grip that an insecurity (such as jealousy) has on you.
7. If you keep having the same argument, or have trouble finding a solution, consider couples counseling
If you and your partner struggle to find mutually acceptable solutions, you may find yourself starting to argue more frequently.
Whether you find that you’re squaring off over the same issues over and over, or new ones are popping up faster than you can handle them, you may want to seek outside help.
Seeing a couples counselor can help you better understand each other’s thoughts and feelings, identify the ways you might push each other’s buttons, and learn skills for solving problems.
Healing your relationship following an argument can take time, persistence, and patience. By communicating and problem-solving together, it’s possible to work through the pain and hurt. You can understand one another better, strengthen your relationship, and discover a solution that can work for both of you.
Remember, it’s completely normal for partners to fight at times. But it’s just as important to recognize when the pattern is becoming unhealthy or damaging, and reach out for help from a professional when you need it.