After the Fight — Making Up the Right Way

Going from enemies to lovers again.

Posted Dec 13, 2019

When couples fight, they often make reckless and mean-spirited statements that they often regret when the battle is over. Nevertheless, these words can still cumulatively damage the relationship over time.   

All intimate relationships have their own “acceptable” words and phrases that the partners are willing to forgive after the fight is over. They intuitively know what they must never say, even in the heat of battle.

But there are other argumentative interactions that can exact a different but equally threatening price. Repeated disputes that are never adequately resolved can also cumulatively damage a relationship over time.  

The way that couples resolve their disagreements after a battle can prevent that from happening. Partners who are able to review what ensued in the disagreement calmly and with an eye to do better in the future, are far more likely to successfully rebuild their relationship after they end their dispute.

Interacting that way is similar to the debriefing that athletic teams practice after a game. Once the contest is over, they talk about how they could have interacted more effectively. They’re not interested in blaming or score-keeping. Instead, even if what happened was painful or disappointing, they are more interested in improving their next interaction based upon what they’ve learned from the previous one.

Sadly, that is not what typically happens to many intimate partners after they fight. Their post-battle interactions are like the aftershocks of an earthquake. Not only do the arguments remain unresolved, they are doomed to be endlessly rehashed without resolution.

There are easy guidelines to help couples learn the differences between debriefing and rehashing. It would seem that partners who care for each other would choose to learn and use them. Yet, many of them, despite their continued commitment to the relationship, can’t seem to make that happen.

Three barriers hold them back. The first is that the couple doesn’t realize that what they are fighting about is a diversion from something else they are more afraid to face. The second is that they think they are responding to each other, but are, in fact, experiencing their partners as people from their past, projecting unresolved battles from prior relationships on to each other. The third is that a couple suffering from stresses unrelated to their relationship can unwittingly take them out on each other.

Whichever of these barriers are in play, they will interfere with transforming rehashing into debriefing, and will turn once-beloved friends into feared and avoided enemies over time.  

The First Barrier

As people live their lives, they learn to bury experiences that are painful, humiliating, or damaging to their sense of self. Unfortunately, when their emotions are intensified, those repressed feelings emerge, often out of proportion to what is being fought over.

So many of my couples tell me that when they are upset, they feel as if someone else takes them over who doesn’t care about what he or she says, no matter how painful it may be to the other partner.

When the fight is over, they feel terrible about what they’ve said or for the pain it has caused. Sometimes they apologize profusely. Oddly, at other times, to keep the demons hidden, they will double down on actually picking fights to vent their internal frustrations.

The Second Barrier

So many people do not resolve their traumas, especially those that are experienced early in life. They learn to work around them, developing actions that work despite the lack of true understanding of what drives them to behave the way they do.

Those compensations may work okay enough in most areas of their lives, but intimate relationships tend to expose them over time. Familiarity is a strong magnet and the draw to merge with people who remind us of others in our past can be very strong.

I’ve been a relationship therapist for over four decades. Yet it never ceases to amaze me when I observe intimate partners believe they are fighting with each other but are actually speaking to people who are not present. I often ask couples to record an adversarial interaction, transfer it to paper, and then ask themselves who they are symbolically talking to, triggered by what is happening with their partners in their present interaction.

Partners who react to each other as though they were people from their pasts often cannot remember what they were even fighting about when the arguments are over. They look at one another afterward as if they’ve been watching themselves in a movie, yet must still deal with the sorrow left behind.

The Third Barrier

Unexpected or prolonged challenges can fray nerves and shorten tempers. In all relationships, over time, personalities shift, social ties change, families disrupt, financial woes intrude, illnesses and fatigue affect sexual vitality and availability, and expressions of love can diminish as stress eats away at resiliency.

There are many symptoms of stress but they are similar in the way they are expressed and interact with basic personality characteristics that influence when, how, and why they emerge.

Most people, when stressed over a long period of time, are more likely to snap, to avoid conflict, or even to create adversarial interactions to release tension.  

Couples suffering from stress fight more often, period. If they get away from those stresses before they have done too much damage, their love, sex, patience, humor, and fun often spontaneously return. But too much stress, for too long, will drive a couple to blame each other for things that would never be an issue if life were just easier.

How Friends Become Enemies

When I’m dealing with couples who have gone from caring, loving partners to bickering conflict-ridden enemies, I watch their body language, vocal pitches, facial expressions, physical distance, and rhythms as they fight in front of me.

It is relatively easy to see how much they no longer represent the people who once cared deeply for each other. They have forgotten how to live in one another’s hearts and minds, and do not listen or appear to feel anything but their own need to win and to be right.

More often than not, the same people know not to act that way with anyone else. They intuitively know those behaviors would be not only unadvisable but unacceptable, even to themselves. Yet, here in what was once the most important haven of their lives, they are rampantly and irresponsibly creating mutual destruction.

They have forgotten how to love, how to forgive, how to understand, and how to preserve the preciousness of what brought them together in the first place.

Going from Rehashing to Debriefing

There are six simple steps to successfully create healing after conflict. If couples can work through the above three issues that stop them from resolving and regenerating, they can learn and practice them. When they do, disagreements rapidly change shape and can actually become an eternal source of new possibilities.

1. Fantasy Videos

Imagine yourselves being videotaped during your arguments and then showing the entire interaction to three people you want to impress with your values, ethics, and behaviors. Look at yourselves through the eyes of others you respect and admire.

2. Switching Roles

Re-create a typical fight as an exercise. Switch roles, including posture, voice intonation, facial expressions, rhythm, and proximity. If you’ve been witnessed often by someone you both trust, ask that person to choreograph the interaction so you stay in role.

3. Pre-set the Foundation Before the Argument

When you begin to disagree about anything, start first by telling your partner what you are feeling, what you need, and why you must bring up this conflict at this time. Make sure that he or she is open to hearing you and wants to resolve the issue. If you need time to breathe or to take a few minutes to quiet down, ask for that before you continue interacting. Keep your rhythm slow, your voices quiet, and your facial expressions open or, at least, not hostile.

4. Checking Your Reactivity

Remember that we are all the ages we’ve always been, not just the one we are now. Painful interactions from the past are all lurking, ready to be awakened if a phrase, posture, or sound activates them. If you begin to feel reactive and out of control, ask yourself how old you feel and what happened to you at that age. Tell your partner you are reliving a traumatic experience from the past and need time out to separate it from what is happening between you in the present.

5. Stop Sign

This is a crucial part of the healing process. If either one of you, at any time, feels in danger, is folding, or cannot bear what is happening, your partner must be instantly willing to respect your hand held in front of you with a palm forward. For whatever reason, anyone can become overloaded to the point where he or she cannot be rational nor able to resolve anything. There is no point in continuing an interaction at that time and heartbreak will result.

6. Decency and Kindness

There is never a legitimate reason to let go of those intentions, even though it is human to forget them at times.

Learn more at Heroic Love.