By Deborah J Fox, MSW
“It’s impossible for us to go on a simple shopping trip to buy a coffee maker without arguing.”
“Why does even a simple exchange have to be so tense. I don’t get it.”
“I don’t even know what started it, just all of a sudden we were at each other’s throats.”
Couples argue. Even when the shouting stops, there’s a chill in the air for the rest of the day. But then what? You want to somehow resolve this and get back to a better vibe with your partner, but you’re still mad. You get busy with a solo project, hoping time will heal or you call your best friend and go over all the “and then they said (fill in the blank)!” You’re still mad, but now some gloom starts to set in. Here we go again, you hate this.
Learning to repair an argument is the path to recovery from all the tension they create. And the quicker the better because an hour or two of misery beats days of emotional disconnection and perhaps some icy stares.
Repairing an argument is hard to do, but the cost of not doing it is high. Without repair, misunderstandings and hurt feelings don’t disappear – they just go into hibernation and reappear at unsuspecting moments days, weeks, and months later. “REMEMBER THAT TIME?” isn’t usually spoken in conversational tones.
Prevention is at the heart of repair. When you heal the rupture, this goes a long way in creating a feeling of safety and security with each other. With this uptick in safety, the atmosphere between you feels warmer and more connected. As a result, there are fewer sparks to ignite into another quarrel.
The First Step
Oddly enough, the beginning of a repair is actually to stop the argument as soon as possible so that there’s less damage to recover from. So much of the leftover hurt and anger is about the harsh words that were exchanged in the heat of the moment. The longer the dispute goes on, the hurt continues to pile up and the inflicted wounds cut deeper.
As you likely know, when you’re all riled up, it’s really hard to stop. It’s so tempting to think, “just one more sentence and I’ll prove my point!” Or, you so want to be understood that disengaging feels like conceding or giving up. When tempers are flaring, understanding isn’t going to happen. Just saying.
In a prior calm moment, agree on a “time out” signal or word – something as simple as the traditional “t” hand signal used in sports or a neutral word such as “orange” will due. Agree that you both will respect the signal, no matter what.
Then physically separate - if you stay together, re-starting the argument might be irrestible. You’re likely either charged up or sinking into feeling withdrawn or emotionally shut down. Notice which is most true for you. If you’re charged up – your heart might be beating a bit faster and you’re in a “fight” mode. Allow your nervous system to settle into neutral – going for a run or fast walk is usually the best thing to do. If you’re sinking, try moving – going for a run or fast walk is also helpful here – even though it can be challenging to find the motivation.
Think of your logical brain being offline when you’re in one of these states. Finding an equilibrium in your own nervous system is crucial before you can think clearly – this can take an hour for one person and many hours for another. Finding this state where you are neither in a charged-up mode nor a shut down one is what can allow you to have a conversation that feels safer and more constructive.
Even though one of you said or did something that triggered the argument, both of you likely participated in the continuing volley. This time out period gives you the opportunity to reflect on what happened. Ask yourself these questions:
1. What was the very first moment when you felt hurt, dismissed, unappreciated, insulted? You’ll probably have to look a layer deeper than the anger you may have felt – or still feel – as anger is a wonderful narcotic that serves to mask underlying feelings that are more painful to experience.
2. How did you react? What was your tone of voice? What you say in the course of a heated exchange often causes your partner to feel threatened in some way and they respond defensively because that’s how we’re designed – our first imperative is to protect ourselves.
3. How do you think your partner felt? Try to put yourself in your partner’s shoes and imagine how they might have felt in response to your words, ton and behavior.
The Hardest Part
What do you think you contributed to the argument? You may feel innocent in causing the altercation, but perhaps threw some darts that escalated the turmoil. Repair begins with an apology for your part in it, even if you think you’re only responsible for two percent of what happened.
Why is it hard to apologize? If you genuinely apologize, it requires you to be vulnerable, a feeling people tend to find extremely uncomfortable. Admitting you’ve been wrong or behaved in a way that you’re not proud of can be quite painful. Perhaps you were criticized in your family growing up and this brings up bad feelings that you try to avoid at all costs. Perhaps apologizing makes you feel weak, or you fear that you’ll lose power in the relationship. It might bring up feelings of self-loathing or worthlessness. Blaming your partner avoids all that discomfort – and keeps the argument cycle likely to continue.
A true apology comes without an explanation. “I’m sorry, but I was just so frustrated,” doesn’t qualify. A true apology comes from that place in you of vulnerability, “I’m sorry I criticized you, and I know that hurt you.” If more needs to be unpacked to find resolution, save it for a later conversation.
The Bottom Line
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.”
- Rumi, thirteenth century philosopher
The recipe for arguing less over time is focusing on recovery. The secret is dipping into those vulnerable feelings, stepping into your partner’s shoes, and summoning up the courage to take that step of authentically apologizing. Then you can experience the connection with your partner when you meet each other in that “field that is beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing .”