How To Keep Fights From Damaging Your Relationship

Think back to the last big disagreement you had with your partner. Do you cringe when you remember saying something you wish you could take back? Do you feel a jolt of pain when you remember something your partner said, even though they didn’t really mean it? How long did it take you to repair the damage from that fight? Now, as you look back, is it really completely healed? Would your partner agree with you?

Handling a fight well is one of the hardest and also most important things you can do to build a happy relationship. Staying calm, rational, and empathetic in a stressful situation means working against your brain’s most basic survival instincts. In my next blog post, I’ll write about how to build your ability to remain curious and calm, but for now, I’d like to focus on what to do when you are NOT curious OR calm.  

Imagine: the conversation is heating up. Your voice is rising. You’re turning red. You know you are right and your partner is wrong. Why can’t they see the obvious?

This behavior is perfectly normal. There’s nothing wrong with you. Your body is doing its job: protecting you. Your brain has a survival mechanism that is extremely sensitive. When it perceives a threat, all it can do is fight, fly, or freeze. This survival mechanism floods your body with stress chemicals that make it easier to fight off an attacker or run from a bear.

But there’s a trade-off: your brain can no longer use logic, do math, think through a problem, or even empathize. Nobody is kind or polite when triggered. This response is designed to save your life. But it might be a little over the top given that it’s your beloved partner you’re facing down, and your life is probably not in danger.

It’s almost impossible to fight this life-saving stress response once it starts. The best thing you can do is take a “time out” and return to the discussion once you’ve both calmed down.

Here are my 6 steps to “time out” effectively:

  1. Plan ahead. Have a conversation about timing out with your partner before your next fight. Agree on an easy-to-remember signal that will mean “I love you, and I’m calling time out so we can avoid doing damage.” Agree that whoever called time out will take responsibility for re-opening the conversation. This is not about avoidance, abandonment, or denial. Part of the deal is you come back and try again to resolve the issue.
  2. Watch for stress signals. Next time you and your partner come into conflict, pause. Breathe. See if you can stay curious. Slow way down. This is a lot easier if you start at the very first sign of upset. If you start to notice yourself thinking in terms of right/wrong, me versus you, or trying to convince your partner of your viewpoint, you will want to slow all the way down to a time out. The sooner you take a break, the fewer stress chemicals you have to metabolize before you get your logical, caring, curious brain back.
  3. Call “time out.” When you notice your stress signals, call “time out” and pause the conversation. Don’t say another word–you risk sucking both of you back into the fight.  Remember, you will return to it later, when you both are able to access your logical brain rather than your self-protective brain. Protecting your relationship and one another is a better strategy than continuing when neither of your can access logic or empathy!
  4. Separate and soothe. You and your partner will need time to recover. Go to separate rooms, or leave the house. Some people can calm down together by silently sitting holding hands, but most need to separate. The important thing is that you intentionally try to become calm, rather than obsessively thinking about how wrong your partner is and how right you are. Choose a soothing activity that appeals to you. Time outs can last from a few minutes to a few days or even longer, depending on how good you are at calming yourself down, and how upset you got. You’ll know you’re there when you think loving thoughts, and can see that your partner might have a point, at least from their viewpoint.
  5. Return. Once both you and your partner have fully recovered, it’s time to make contact. The partner who called “time out” will be in charge of re-initiating contact with the other partner. You don’t want anyone to feel abandoned or cast aside, or to be left wondering if the issue will simply remain unresolved. Once you re-initiate contact, you don’t have to dive back into the thick of it right away. It can often be better to set up a time to return to the conversation, so that you can pick a good time, plan for it, and bring your best self to it.
  6. Time out” again? When you return to the conversation, continue to pay attention to your body signals, breathe, go slow, and challenge yourself to remain curious and calm for a little longer. Still, you may find that you have to “time out” again. That’s not a failure, but rather a representation of your willingness to take loving care of your partner and yourself, no matter what.

This is part of a series about navigating conflict in relationships. Check out last week’s installment about how to stay steady during tough conversations.

7 Steps to Stay Steady in Tough Conversations

As a couples therapist, I help people learn to hold steady in very difficult conversations with their partner. I know this is not easy, because I had to learn it myself. My spouse, who is much more even-tempered than I, and has been an amazing and challenging teacher for me, particularly when it comes to holding steady and staying in the conversation.

Twenty-two years later, I find it comes much more naturally for me. We are able to make hard conversations look easy. We both know from experience that we can get to a mutually satisfying resolution even if we start off with strong differences of opinion. At least for me, learning to hold steady was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and it would have helped me a lot to know how good the payoff is. The payoff is great!

Today, I’m going to share some steps I take to stay in the game and minimize drama and suffering for both of us. Next time someone you love says something to you that really shakes you up, give this a try.

  1. Pause. Take a moment before you respond at all. Breathe. Breathe some more. Put your feet on the ground and steady yourself. Remind yourself of this: your partner is expressing something about themselves; their perceptions, beliefs, feelings, and meanings they make of various situations. Even if they are pointing their finger and accusing you of something, they are actually telling you about their perceptions, not some global truth. If you want to know them deeply, you will need to listen and get curious.
  2. Set aside your feelings for a few minutes. This was the hardest part for me. I am a person who believes in honoring and expressing my feelings. This is not the time. Remind yourself that you will give your feelings and opinions attention soon, and right now it is not your turn. You will honor your feelings after this conversation. Whatever is still lingering after a break can be expressed fully to your partner. They will be much more willing to hear you out after they experience how amazing it is to feel heard. Your job right now is to give them that experience. Listen. Get curious. Hold your emotions lovingly, and don’t express them yet.
  3. Don’t judge, argue, defend, or convince. Remember: this is someone you love. You respect them, and you don’t have to agree with them. You don’t ever have to agree with them about this. But it might be nice to understand what their internal experience is when this thing happens or this topic comes up. If you truly see this from their perspective, it will probably make some sense, even if their perspective is vastly different from yours. If you argue, defend yourself, or try to convince them you’re right, they will never confide in you about the fear, shame, or vulnerability that underlies their reactions. You will have missed an opportunity for connection.
  4. Get curious. Invite them to give you a tour of their internal culture. How do they see things? How did this get under their skin? What does this issue represent to them? Does this issue challenge something about themselves? The more curious you can get, the more connected you both will feel.  
  5. Focus on feelings and meanings, not details. As you get curious, ask your partner some questions about this activity, experience, or situation–whatever it is they’ve described to you. As you ask, focus your questions on their feelings, rather than on the specifics of the situation. Here are some examples of good questions:    
    • How did that go for you?   
    • At what point did things start feeling bad to you?    
    • What didn’t you like about it? What was going on for you inside?   
    • What did I do or say that made it worse? How did that make it worse?    
    • Can you explain to me how this felt so bad? What did it mean to you that I …(name the perceived hurtful thing here).
  6. Express empathy. At some point you will begin to see that this is about them, not you. For me, I can tell I’m there when I suddenly think “Oh my gosh, THAT’S what you think when I do that?? Wow. Well, of course you’re upset if that’s how you see it or that’s what you heard. That was not my intention, and I’m so sorry for the misunderstanding.”
  7. Post-process. Now is the time to revisit your feelings if they are still swirling around in a worked-up mass. See if you can think about it, journal about it, or let it go. This might be surprisingly easy. If you got all the way to empathy, and had an “aha” moment about your partner’s responses being different but nonetheless understandable, the hurt you felt might have simply gone away. If not, ask your partner if there is a time you could express your experience to them. When the time comes, focus on your feelings, perceptions, beliefs and meanings made. Express the vulnerability underneath the issue, if you know what it is. If not, ask your partner to help you get to the bottom of why this was so upsetting to you.

What do you do when these steps fail, and your conversation starts to turn into a fight? Read more in my post about how to stop fights from damaging your relationship. 

Better than “Better Half”

Have you ever heard the phrase “better half”?

Our culture is rife with this idea–that two partners are two halves of a whole. Lovers tell one another “you complete me.” In marriage ceremonies, we talk about two becoming one. Even the term “soulmate” refers to an Ancient Greek idea that true lovers were two halves of a whole body, split in two by the wrath of the gods and desperately seeking to rejoin.

These ideas are poetic, and it’s easy to see why they appeal. But there’s a darker side to them. What does this idea imply for single people? No one should have to feel like they’re incomplete without a partner. Yet many people do feel this way, and our cultural ideas about love don’t help.

This idea of the “better half” can create disturbing dynamics in relationships, too. If you feel like you’re not whole without your partner, a threat to the relationship becomes a threat to your very being.

When you feel like your relationship and your SELF is threatened, you are more likely to put up with treatment you wouldn’t otherwise endure, because anything is better than the relationship ending. Or, out of fear, you may attempt to control your partner, because you think that if they leave you will be diminished.

This also plays out in more subtle ways. In an attempt to be the perfect match for your partner, you may let entire parts of your self drop away, until you don’t even quite remember who you are. In the early days of a new relationship, this is part of the bonding process, but over time it might turn into resentment–even if your partner never asked you to sacrifice anything.

People just don’t fit into each other like two halves of a broken plate. We have all kinds of jagged projections and weird, nubbly edges. Your jagged edges will never perfectly match your partner’s, and if you try to force it, you’ll just end up scratching each other.

Loving someone isn’t about losing yourself in them, melting seamlessly into one whole. It’s about discovering a singular, separate soul, and being discovered in turn. If you squash your true opinions, desires, and preferences in an attempt to have a frictionless relationship, you deny your partner the opportunity to truly know you as a being like no other. Opening up in that way can be truly frightening. What if you expose your true self, and your partner rejects you? But consider: what if you expose your true self and your partner loves you, whole and entire?