Two women lying on the floor making loving eye contact

How to Recover from a Bad Argument

Disagreements are an inevitable and essential part of any healthy relationship, but problems can arise when an argument “goes too far.” Maybe someone raises their voice or uses unkind words. Maybe someone slams doors, storms out of the house, or shuts down for long periods of time. Maybe the topic under discussion is more sensitive than either of you realized and all kinds of associated but unrelated issues are coming up. Whatever the case, one or both of you is feeling distant, hurt, perhaps even afraid after this difficult conversation. 

After a small argument, a short time-out and a heartfelt apology may be all that’s needed to smooth things over. In cases when more is required, here are a few ideas to restore harmony and connection after a bad argument. Whether one or both of you was at fault in this scenario, it’s time to remind yourselves that despite your differences you love and respect one another, and have a lot to offer to the relationship.

  • Request Physical Contact: “I’m feeling a little disconnected right now, can I have a hug?”
    If you or your partner are still upset by an earlier argument, asking for brief but meaningful physical contact can be a great way to break the ice. Asking for permission is important, as it shows that you respect that feelings were hurt, but you’re still seeking connection. Even if your partner is begrudging at first, they’ll likely agree and feel reassured by your attention. Hugging a loved one has many scientifically proven benefits including making us less reactive to stress, helping us regulate our emotions, supporting healthy sleep patterns, and improving immunity. In addition, hugging triggers our brain to release oxytocin, a neurochemical responsible for building strong social bonds. Hugging your partner reaffirms the importance of your connection, and reduces the stress you’re both likely experiencing from the argument.

  • Share Your Feelings and Check In With Theirs: “Our conversation yesterday was really tense and I’ve been feeling really anxious/sad about it. I wondered if you felt the same way?”
    When we feel misunderstood or attacked, our body can release epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, as part of a “fight or flight” response. This neurochemical allows us to respond to life-threatening situations by causing changes in our body including faster reflexes, increased heart rate and blood pressure, and a jolt of energy. In a truly threatening situation, these responses allow us to escape danger and fight back, but in something as low-stakes as an argument, they can magnify perceived problems, make us irritable and defensive, and cause communication to break down. Regardless of who was at fault in the argument, both of you may have an adrenaline hangover from the stress, and may have said or done things you regret now. Keeping in mind that physical and/or emotional abuse is never warranted or acceptable, it’s a good idea to check in with your partner about how you’re both feeling. If they freaked out at you, they may be ashamed of their behavior, and worried you can’t forgive them. If you freaked out at them, while they may have reacted defensively initially, they could be worried you don’t love them anymore, and afraid of being rejected. Both of you are recovering from your adrenaline rush, and sharing your feelings and checking in with theirs opens the door to admit that you’re both human, both fallible, and both willing to keep talking.
  • Schedule Time to Revisit the Issue: “I’m not sure we resolved anything here. Can we try talking about it in a different way later?”
    While it may be tempting to jump back into an argument shortly after reconciliation, especially if it’s unresolved, it’s a better idea to let the dust settle more before returning to the conversation. Clearly whatever you were discussing was more fraught and complex than you thought when you started the conversation, and it’s important to try and return to a base-level of understanding before embarking again - otherwise you’ll likely repeat the pattern. If your partner is anxious to return to the subject, set a designated time to return to it and stick to that time. This demonstrates that while you need your own boundaries respected, you are reliable and care about their feelings, and are willing to make strides in a productive conversation when the time is right. It may be a good idea for both of you to get a little alone time as well. Write about how you feel, talk to a trusted friend or therapist, and be open to seeing both sides of the issue. Try to be curious about your partner’s reaction rather than defensive if you can. Try to be curious about your own reaction rather than judgmental if you can. Arguing with a partner is highly stressful and you may both have shown an unattractive aspect of your personality. You both deserve a moment to heal and reflect, and an empathetic response from your partner no matter how you felt. 
  • Find Neutral Ground to Reconnect: “Can we take a walk to the park/around the block for now? I just want to relax and spend time with you.”
    If your argument was particularly difficult, it can feel impossible to do something normal and act like nothing happened afterwards. Your head might still be running the script from your fight over and over, unable to think about anything else. You may be angry with your partner still for losing their temper with you, or unable to accept their reaction to what you said or did. While it’s not healthy to completely ignore what happened and compartmentalize the whole experience, a short break doing something physical helps your body calm down from the interaction, clears your head, and allows you to spend quality time with your partner. Ideally you’ll either be able to talk about a neutral subject (people/dog watching, window shopping, changing leaves, etc.) or share companionable silence. Even if you and your partner got in a fight, you’re still together, and you still want to make the relationship work. Every couple fights, and everyone loses their temper from time to time. The important thing is not to be perfect, but to be mindful of your mistakes, forgiving of others, and willing to maintain your connection in any way possible. Until you’re able to have a calm conversation about whatever was bothering you, you can still enjoy one another’s company, as long as you’re both willing to revisit the topic at another time in a more open and peaceful frame of mind.

Couples fight, and arguments can lead to greater understanding and acceptance between you, but if you’re fighting every day over every little thing, and if your emotional reactions to these fights are out of scale with the subject matter, it could be time for deeper reflection. Speaking to a therapist individually or pursuing couples counseling can uncover unconscious causes for disagreement, and help you foster greater understanding between you. 

If fighting is constant and you feel in any way unsafe around your partner when they’re upset, firmer boundaries are required. No one deserves to live in a state of stress or fear because of their partner’s constant bad mood. They may have their own emotional or mental challenges that they need to address, and while you can be supportive if they are working on them, you don’t need to be there if they’re in denial that there’s a problem.