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What to do after a fight

Partners fight. This is a natural, normal part of romantic relationships - arguments will occur because despite our best efforts, all of us are human beings. There are steps we can take to decrease the occurrence of arguments with our partners - learning about concepts such as the relationship Four Horsemen is a great towards reducing conflict with your partners. However, when arguments do occur, we should not try to just push past them and hope everything will work out without conscious efforts to make things better. For healing to occur, we must be able to sit with our partners and talk through what went wrong, what we felt and need, and how to proceed with each other going forward.

Drs. Julie and John Gottman, couples therapy experts who also happen to be a married couple, advise for couples to follow a 5-step reconciliation process which they refer to as “Aftermath of a Fight or Regrettable Incident”. These steps help to guide partners through the feelings that arose during the argument all the way to creating constructive plans of how to move forward with resolutions or ways to reduce further conflict. Throughout this article, we will discuss each of the steps to reconciliation and how to apply it to your own relationships.

Before the Aftermath

It’s important to note that one cannot just dive into these steps immediately following an argument or regrettable incident. Certain factors must be presented in order for the following steps to be most effective. Julie Gottman emphasizes in her work that partners must be ready to “process” the situation - meaning that you can talk about what happened without re-entering the argument or conflict. Be sure that enough time and space has been present for each person to feel calm enough to discuss. The goal should be to understand what happened - not to try to re-enter the situation. It’s also important to note that with this activity, we assume that every person’s experience is valid: there is no “true” reality but rather valid “subjective realities” for each of the partners involved.

Step 1: Feelings

To start off, it’s important to discuss the emotions that each partner experienced during the conflict. Take turns expressing what you felt, but do not go into the “whys” of the feeling. This step is geared towards acknowledging the emotions that come up and understanding them. Do not comment on the emotions that your partner brings up, just listen to them as they speak. A helpful format to follow is to just use this phrase: “I felt (emotion).” (Avoid utilizing phrases like “I felt ___ when you…”). Be specific with your emotions - do not go with general descriptions of “I felt mad”, “I felt sad”. If you’re struggling with what emotions to share, you can utilize tools like the Feelings Wheel to guide your discussion.

Step 2: Realities

In this step, we start to get deeper into what each person’s perceptions of the situation were. Each partner will take turns providing a description of what they experienced during the conflict. Be sure to speak in the first person - do not make claims of what your partner said or meant. For example, “I heard you say that…” is more helpful than “You said that…” because it puts the emphasis on your understanding of what your partner said. Be as objective in your descriptions as possible - state what you heard and experienced but do not attack or blame your partner. Avoid value statements and judgments.

After each person speaks, the other should summarize and validate what was said. Summarizing should be done in a way without adding any of your own judgments in, either. An example of this might be: “I’m hearing that you felt unheard when I talked about ____”. Validating your partner means expressing understanding of your partner’s perspective. This does not mean you have to necessarily agree with your partner, it may sound instead like:
“I can understand how you thought that…” or “It makes sense that you felt ___ when I ____”. End each summary and validation with a check-in to make sure there is nothing you missed from your partner’s account. Both partners should feel understood in their accounts before proceeding to Step 3.

Step 3: Triggers

In most conflicts, there are emotional triggers hiding beneath surface level arguments regarding washing dishes and paying the bills. With this step, it’s important to look for larger themes and meanings in the conflict that connect to past experiences, maybe even early life events. Sharing these deeper meanings with partners can not only provide understanding but also bring partners closer together as they create more complex views of one another. Let’s dig deeper into an example here:

  • Alex and Aaron get into a fight when Alex arrives at work late one day because she has to stop to refill an empty gas tank. Aaron promised the night before to fill the tank, but forgot. After the fight, Alex and Aaron discuss the feelings experienced and each of their perspectives. Alex discussed that the fear of being late is a trigger for her. Early in Alex’s career, she was laid off after arriving late too often due to unreliable public transportation. Now that Alex drives to work, she is very anxious about being timely.

In this instance, Alex’s trigger was her fear of being late.

Knowing emotional triggers helps us become better supports for our partner’s. Before proceeding to the next step, partners should also be able to validate and understand one another’s triggers.

Step 4: Responsibility

Each partner has a role that they play in conflict. It’s important to acknowledge your contributions to the regrettable incident by taking responsibility. Consider first what set you up for miscommunication or misunderstanding in that moment. What moods have you recently been in? What events preceded the argument for you? What was the impact of outside factors on your emotional state? Note any patterns you’ve noticed in yourself either within the relationship or outside of it.

Next, reflect on how you added to the conflict. What was something you did or said that you wish you could have done differently? Be specific where possible - don’t use general statements like “I regret being moody” but rather phrases like “I regret that I didn’t express to you how stressed I was from work”. After each partner reflects on their contributions to the conflict or regrettable incident, it’s important for everyone to identify and express what they can apologize for. If a partner’s apology is accepted, this needs to be directly stated. If not, partners need to discuss what needs to happen for the apology to be accepted in the future.

Step 5: Constructive Plans

To wrap up, partners must collaborate on a plan for moving forward. For this step, it’s helpful to start with each partner expressing what their partner could do in the future to reduce or prevent similar conflict. Make sure that these statements are expressed calmly - if they cannot be, it might be a good sign to take a pause for self-soothing before returning to this step. After stating what your partner can do in the future, you should also state for yourself one thing that you can do differently as well. Once everyone has expressed individual plans, partners should create a sense of what needs to happen to move on from this conflict. Be specific with one another and open-minded to your partner’s suggestions.

Conclusion & Further Resources

Making up after a fight can be challenging for everyone involved. All of these steps require practice and patience, both for our partners and ourselves. Do not fret if the process is difficult, especially at first. Relationship masters are not those who don’t have fights or regrettable incidents - they’re partners who will do the work to build and maintain their connections, even in the face of conflict. For more resources on conflict resolution and relationships, check out:

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman


The Gottman Institute


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