by Sara Graves, LPC
This is a common sentiment shared in a counselor’s office. Couples frequently seek therapy because they’ve been fighting about the same two or three things over and over again, and they can’t quite figure out how to get off the merry-go-round. They may be able to see the pattern, but they can’t seem to move towards resolving conflict.
“I hate that we’re always fighting. Neither of us wants it to be like this, but once we start arguing I feel so hopeless. Maybe we are two people who just can’t get along…”
One of the most crucial skills that successful couples develop is the ability to reconnect after a fight. Truly repairing disconnection requires more than just a ceasefire- you must be able to communicate understanding to your partner to start resolving conflict. When you can do this effectively, you will transform the argument from a battle you want to flee into a moment of deep connection. But what does this look like in practice?
Here are some steps on how to begin resolving conflict
Step 1: Identify what you were feeling…
Ask yourself what emotions you were feeling during the argument. Often couples will say “Well obviously I was feeling angry!”. Yet this is often a ‘secondary emotion’ or defensive response to protect us from feeling more painful things like fear, sadness, or rejection. If you’re struggling to identify your feelings, take a look at emotion word lists like this one here. Once you’ve identified your emotion(s), share it with your partner and ask what they were feeling.
Step 2: Explain and validate each person’s reality…
While it may be hard to believe, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ perspective on the subject of the argument. You each had emotions, beliefs, and history that colored how you experienced the situation. Take time to explain your feelings, fears, and needs during the interaction. Listen without judgment as your partner does the same, and show them that you understand why they may have felt that way.
Step 3: Share your triggers…
All the things you identified in the last two steps are often ‘triggers’ that cause us to act regrettably. Think back on your personal history about times when you may have felt the same feelings, fears or needs. Often those past experiences amplify our response in the present because we worry the situation is going to play out how it did before. Share this past experience with your partner, and listen actively as your partner shares theirs. This is an opportunity for you to learn about what emotional ‘sore spots’ you can be mindful of in the future.
Step 4: Accept responsibility for your part…
Believe it or not, it takes two to have an argument. Your partner may have truly hurt you, but there is always room for improvement in your own behavior. Think back on what you said or did during the argument to find something you would like to do differently. This is your chance to offer your partner an olive branch.
Step 5: Plan for the future…
Now you need to set yourself up for success. What opportunities do you have to compromise or better meet your partner’s needs? Are there behaviors you need to avoid next time? How can you more gently express a complaint or need to each other? How can we start resolving conflict?
Every marriage will experience conflict, but it’s how the couple reconnects afterward that will keep their relationship strong. Practice using these five steps to transform a regrettable incident into an opportunity for a deeper understanding of your partner.
If you’d like to learn more about this blog post and how to use the ‘Aftermath of a Fight’ skill, reach out to the author Sara Graves, Licensed Professional Counselor, at 971-808-2686 x702 or Sara@LifeDCS.com.
For more information on The Aftermath of a Fight and John Gottman, visit the following article, https://www.gottman.com/blog/manage-conflict-the-aftermath-of-a-fight/, or read The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman and Nan Silver.
**Advice given in this blog post does not constitute a therapeutic relationship or intervention.**
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