By: Cristina Trette
All couples fight from time to time. Yet, the way couples fight, and what they do after a fight, is important. Some couples have created a relationship that is a primary source of soothing and support. They turn to each other for comfort when having a rough day or feeling stressed. If they fight, they know how to repair their relationships afterward. They are also able to reflect on past struggles in an effort to learn and grow.
For other couples, the relationship itself is a large source of stress. They fight often. Negativity dominates their interactions. When fighting, they are focused on winning or standing their ground instead of working together toward a mutual understanding. They do not know how to mend the relationship or reconnect after they fight. Eventually, they may avoid bringing up certain topics, or avoid each other, just because they want to avoid fighting.
Most couples fall somewhere in between. But I can tell you that most couples could probably benefit from spending some time examining what happens before, during, and after a fight!
Stop making things worse
Through a combination of exchanging words, tone, facial expressions, and body language, both partners can quickly move into a state of fight/flight/freeze. If the autonomic nervous system is activated, all your energy will go into ensuring survival at a primal level.
Tension and anger may continue to rise. This can happen fast!
Soon you may be raising voices or throwing words out like daggers (fight).
Or you walk out (flight).
Or, perhaps you stay, but you shut down (freeze).
Trying to have a discussion or continue the argument rationally at this point will only make things worse.
The tipping point
The definition of tipping point is, "the critical point in a situation, process, or system beyond which a significant and often unstoppable effect or change takes place."
When in a true state of fight/fight, I see this as couples reaching the tipping point. When this happens, couples lose access to the thinking part of the brain that assists with problem-solving, cognitive flexibility, judgment, and decision making.
All sorts of things can go haywire past the tipping point. Couples tend to say or do things they regret when they are in this place.
Once you have reached the tipping point, it generally takes 20 minutes or more to return to equilibrium.
Prevention may help
Therefore, it can be important to focus on prevention so that you never reach the tipping point.
Discuss with your partner what supports you in maintaining balance and ask your partner what supports him/her.
Some examples are:
Take long slow deep breaths
Notice what you are feeling in your bodies such as tightness in your chest or rapid heartbeat.
Identify your feeling and name feelings out loud. Such as in, "I am feeling frustrated or I am feeling sad".
Place one hand over the heart and the other hand over your belly. This can help you stay grounded.
Look around the room and saying out loud what you see (such as chair, white walls, couch, etc.) can you keep in the present.
All of these moves will support you in integrating the mind, heart, and body and hopefully, will prevent the tipping point from happening.
Remember your partner is not the adversary
If you were to be attacked by an angry man on a dark street, you would want to get away as fast as possible or defend yourself if physically provoked. This is why we need to have the fight/flight response. It keeps us alive.
Unfortunately, brains can respond to spouses as if they are a threat. When attacked, or when feeling intense anger or fear, the natural reaction is to attack back or get away.
So, you and your partner can work together to remind each other that you are not adversaries, and in fact, you are on the same team.
You can work together to stop the fight
In addition to soothing yourself, you and your partner will want to figure out ways to sooth each other. Some examples may be physical touch, getting outside and walking, reflecting, or extending empathy and validation.
In the Hold me Tight Couples Workshop that was developed by Dr. Sue Johnson, we teach couples how to look at their fight as being part of a cycle that they have the power to step out of and stop. We guide the couples to team up against this cycle.
To learn more about how to do this, read the book Hold me Tight by Dr. Sue Johnson or enroll in a Hold me Tight workshop.
Focus on protecting your relationship instead of protecting yourself
It makes sense why you want to protect yourself. And this needs to be balanced out with a focus on protecting the relationship. This is a radical shift from what many of us have been taught to do.
One way to do this is to ask each other out loud when a fight is brewing, "What can we need to do to protect our relationship right now? And see what you come up with.
Agree to pause when needed
Sometimes we only need to pause for a moment or a few minutes. Often times we need more time than that.
You and your partner can work together to help each other pause. The idea is that you will both agree to step away from the fight, soothe yourself and each other, and come back together when you are both emotionally balanced.
Coming up with a plan for pausing together helps to ensure that the break itself does not push you over the tipping point.
Some examples of how pausing can look are:
Pause and touch. You can request to pause, stop talking for a few minutes and connect through touch. This is a powerful way to get back on track as touch tends to be soothing to the nervous system. Once you both feel balanced, try talking again.
Take a break. Agreeing to take a 20-minute break with the intention of talking after the break can be very helpful. During the break, you do not want to sit and stew and make yourself more upset. Instead, consider walking outside, drinking some water, or journaling.
Discuss in the evening after work. Fights that start in the morning or during the workday, can pile on immense stress. Requesting to discuss the issue in the evening can be very helpful.
Repair and reconnect
Being able to repair the relationship after the fight is one of the most important predictors of relationship satisfaction.
If you end up reaching the tipping point regardless of your best attempts to avoid this, it will be very important to find a way to reach for each other afterwards.
This is a time to express your own feelings or remorse over what you said or did. Ask for and give reassurance.
Hold each emotionally and physically.
Circle back to the issue once you are back to balance
After repair and reconnection, make sure that you follow up with each other.
Something triggered this fight! Sweeping it under the rug in an attempt to avoid fighting again will not be a good long-term strategy.
Sometimes you really do need to work through a problem. So plan a good time to talk if if needed.
However, many couples find that after repair and connection, what they were fighting about becomes completely irrelevant. In fact, on an unconscious level, many couples fight just to get connection. Once the need for connection is filled, the fight dissolves.
Lastly, if you find that your fights are becoming more and more escalated and hurtful or if you cannot seem to repair after fights, it may be helpful to get some guidance from a couples therapist or attend a couples workshop. We are here to support you create the best relationship possible. Let us know how we can help.
Cristina Trette works with couples and parents who want to improve relationships while attaining personal well-being.
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