Conflict in a relationship is inevitable -- we all have different wants and needs. Naturally, these different wants and needs make it so that we don’t always see eye-to-eye. In our worst moments, even minor miscommunications can trigger full-blown fights.
But the thing about fighting is that – as frustrating as it may feel when it's actually happening – if handled in healthy and appropriate ways, the resolution can actually bring you closer in your relationship. In fact, learning to navigate the post-fight process can set you up to bounce back even stronger than ever.
How does this work? We’ve collected seven steps to healing your relationship after a fight.
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. That’s why it’s important to take timeouts, whether that’s in the heat of the conflict or directly after the argument.
To avoid causing additional heat-of-the-moment hurt, try stepping away momentarily with the intention of giving one another 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, such as an agreement that it’s okay to leave a heated situation if the purpose is to prevent escalation. Others might schedule 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 it risks 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 mean that you’re taking sole responsibility for the argument. Rather, an apology is acknowledging that you have both been hurt; yet 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. Active listening is one tool within the healthy communication toolkit -- an effective way to promote bonding with your partner, as everyone feels like they’re being heard.
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, without pointing fingers.
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 money and don’t think about the financial repercussions” – imply blame, which can 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, it’s time to return to the root of the issue. 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 likely to reach a solution or middle ground much faster when you’re both feeling rational, so make sure you’ve both had adequate time to experience your reactions and are no longer heated.
6. Work together to find a practical solution
Once you’ve both given each other space to air out your respective worries and both feel heard and understood, try to work together towards finding a practical solution.
Take the issue of jealousy. If you feel insecure in your relationship and are alarmed by the perceived 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 then 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. This could mean showing extra affection in situations that trigger jealous anxiety. Or you might decide to listen 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 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 -- or you agree but have troubles actually putting those solutions into practice -- you may find yourself starting to feel even more frustrated with the situation.
Whether you find that you’re squaring off over the same issues yet another time or that new conflicts are popping up faster than you can handle them, you may want to seek help from someone outside the relationship.
Seeing a couples counselor can help you better understand each other’s thoughts, feelings, needs, and attachment styles. You’ll also learn the skills needed to identify the ways you push each other’s buttons and how to end conflict in a healthy way (hello boundary setting!). Couples counselors work with clients of all situations: infidelity, pre-marriage, post-children, moving in together, financial concerns, sex issues, and many more. They have specialized training in moderating between partners and maintaining a neutral, objective stance while giving the couple the tools they need to grow their bond.
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. When you’re looking for a couples counselor, use the Approach filter to find a list of vetted, high-quality couples counselors in your neighborhood. There, you’ll find the perfect therapist to work with you and your partner or partners to make your relationship better than it’s ever been before.