Conflict Resolution: How to Fix a Fight in a Relationship

One of the key ingredients to a secure and solid relationship is how you repair after a fight.  It may take some time and both partners must be willing to make an honest effort to fix a fight. If you have recently been in an argument with your partner, here are some of my top tips for reconnecting and healing any hurts that have been caused.

Conflict Resolution #1: Take Time to Cool Down

Emotions rise during an argument. In order to repair, sometimes a cooling off period is the best way to start. Don’t just leave your house, however. Tell your partner “I need some time to cool off. I am going to go for a walk and I’ll be back in 15 minutes.” This reassures your partner that you will return and are leaving to cool your head, not because you are abandoning him/her. By taking a few minutes apart, you can step out of any negative cycles that are happening in the argument. You can also use this time to reflect on your partner’s point of view.

Conflict Resolution #2: Address The Issue and Own Your Part

Once you have cooled down, whether for a few minutes, hours, or even a day, it is time to talk to your partner about the argument. This might seem like rehashing, but to repair your relationship and rebuild a secure attachment it is vital to address the issues that came up and how you both reacted. Remember to own your part in the argument and don’t be “the victim,” blaming your partner for the entire thing won’t fix a fight.

Conflict Resolution #3: Be Constructive

Use language like, “When you didn’t call to say you were late, I reacted strongly because…” instead of “You’re always late and it’s rude.” This helps your partner understand that a) you acknowledge your role in the disagreement and b) there were underlying reasons for your reaction. It can open your partner’s mind to your perspective instead of making him defensive or feel like he is “on the hot seat” in the aftermath of the fight.

Conflict Resolution #4: Offer Sincere Apologiesfix a fight

Did you know that most of the way people react to you is based on body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions? Make sure that you are sincere when you offer apologies. If your partner gets from the body language that you are just apologizing to make the fight go away, it may actually lead to another argument. Repair the relationship with a sincere apology.

Communication Tip #5: Create A Prevention Plan

Talk with your partner about the next steps to prevent the issue from happening again. This could be agreeing to adopt some different behaviors, such as always texting when you are running late, or bigger steps – like counseling. Create a prevention plan on how you both can avoid going down this path in the future.  When there are big traumas in your past or in the relationship, sometimes a counselor can help you fully repair damage from your arguments and learn new patterns for a healthier dynamic moving forward.

How Do You Apologize Right?

Saying that you’re sorry after you know you’ve done something wrong is often not an easy task. You may have a hard time finding the right words, or be worried that the other person will reject your gesture. Even if you’re anxious, the worst thing you can do is just say a generic “I’m sorry” without any feeling or sincerity. If you want to extend an olive branch, here are some tips for how to apologize and truly improve your relationship:

  1. how to apologizeConnect with the other person’s emotions.

    Even if you’re upset with the person that you’re apologizing to because they have also done something wrong, take time to really think about where they are coming from and what their emotions are. When you can get a handle on what the other person is feeling you can begin to open up yourself and have an honest conversation. If you aren’t bothering to think about the other person’s feelings, they will be able to sense that and it will make it difficult to accept your apology.

  2. Show your own emotions and remorse.

    Open up about why you understand your actions or words hurt the other person and show that you’re sorry with not only your statements, but also your body language and tone of voice. If you tell someone you’re sorry in an angry or sarcastic tone, they are naturally likely to take it the wrong way. Use a soft tone of voice and open body language to show that you are not in a defensive stance. Be vulnerable, and talk about what it means to you that the relationship gets back on track.

  3. Understand the consequences of your actions.

    You can’t always expect someone to immediately forget that their pain ever happened and for things to just “go back to normal.” Depending on what you did, such as belittle or cheat on your partner, it may take time for the wound to heal and for trust to be rebuilt. Tell the person you’re apologizing to that you understand the consequences and will do what it takes to rebuild your dynamic. This will show them that you’re not just offering an empty apology and are willing to put in work to really make things right.

 Knowing how to apologize isn’t an easy task, a real apology needs to acknowledge and show real emotion. Every relationship will face arguments and will have a time for apologies – how you apologize can be the difference between expanding the cracks the hurt caused or filling them up and bringing you closer as a couple.

Repair Your Relationship After a Fight

It is inevitable to fight in a relationship, what’s most important is what happens next. In fact, fighting can actually help to strengthen a relationship. You can read more about it here, but fighting often leads us to have a conversation with our partner with a deeper meaning. This new conversation and repair after the fight results in feeling even closer to your partner and more secure in the relationship. The key here is the repair. So how do you repair after a fight to help keep your relationship strong?

Step 1:

Say “I’m sorry”… and mean it. It sounds simple, but a meaningful apology is the first step to repair.  Be specific about why you’re sorry, and have open body language. Let the other person take it in before you respond. An empty apology might make things worse, so don’t say you’re sorry in a flippant or insincere way. Honesty is key to repairing the damage. This honesty goes both ways, don’t say you are not upset about something when you are; or that you are upset when you’re not. With the help of a therapist, you can take this a step deeper and learn to identify some of the deeper meaning of some of your argument triggers.

Step 2:

Give hugs and kisses. After you both apologize, physical closeness can help you repair the relationship and build emotional closeness. Give tender hugs and kisses; pull your partner close, and hold hands. Let your partner tell you when he or she is ready to get close — after a fight, they might need some space to cool down before they’re ready for physical closeness. Physical touch from people we care about releases oxytocin, our feel-good hormone. Oxytocin also helps keep our stress levels down. Not only is this physical touch good for your relationship, it’s good for you both individually.

(Want to read more about the benefits of physical touch? Check out this post!)

Step 3:

Discuss how to avoid the same fight. Don’t let history repeat itself. Sit down and talk about what triggered the argument so you know how to avoid the same issue in the future. Often arguments are compounded events, talk about what steps you can make at each stage to prevent further escalation. Think about how you know within yourself that you are getting upset; as well as what signs your partner can look out for to signal that you’re getting upset. This step is the trickiest and is best done with the help of a couples’ therapist.

A marriage and family therapist or other relationship professional may be able to help mediate your discussions if you find that you hit a roadblock or can’t seem to get out of the cycle. Emotionally Focused Therapy will help you rewire the way you talk to each other and receive information.

How to Resolve Relationship Fights

You may have heard the statistic that only 7% of what you communicate is in your words. The rest is made up of body language and tone of voice. In order to be heard and understood in relationship fights, we need to keep calm, actively listen, and respond mindfully rather than just reacting.

Open On a Positive Note

A good way to start a conversation that tends to lead to your relationship fights is to sandwich the issue – put the issue in between two positive things. For example, “I think we’re really good at respecting each other’s privacy, but I feel like we need to spend more time together because I really enjoy being able to connect with you.” or “I love your passion for making pottery, but I feel like our finances are really strained right now. I’d love if we could find something less expensive we can do together while we work on our savings.”

Keep Calm

Before you address a hot button issue, take a moment to yourself. Reciprocate to your partner as well; don’t jump to conclusions if they need some time to respond. It doesn’t mean they’re avoiding or lying; we all process differently. Take a deep breath and speak in a nurturing rather than aggressive manner. Communicate your goal for the conversation (“I’d like for us to be able to get on the same page and understand each other about ___”) to establish something you can both agree on. If things get heated, understand that defensiveness is a sign of pain or fear. Let your partner know that their words hurt. If you must take a break to cool down, set a short time limit to consider your feelings, their feelings, and what kind of message you want your partner to receive.

Listen Actively

Especially during the confrontation, your attention, and body language matter. Try to keep your arms and legs uncrossed with your body facing toward your partner, communicating openness and receptiveness. Maintain gentle but direct eye contact. Mind your expressions – smile when appropriate, portray concern as needed, and avoid rolling your eyes if you become exasperated. Offer comfort to a distressed partner through light touch or even a hug.

Wait Your Turn

Relationship fights escalate when each person does not feel heard. Allow your partner to finish their thoughts before stating your own; don’t interrupt them with defensiveness or counterarguments. Expect that they will do the same for you, and if they don’t, let them know (“I would appreciate it if you let me finish this thought. I’ve been listening carefully to what you’ve been saying and I’d like to be heard, too”).

Respond Mindfully

Choose your words carefully. When talking about your partner’s behaviors, use language that reflects how you perceived the situation and how it made you feel. Judgmental or absolute language (“You always think that I’m doing things wrong.”) is like dry tinder for relationship fights. Keep your body language, tone of voice, and overall message in mind as you speak. Saying “That’s fine” through gritted teeth and a tensed back shows very clearly that it is not fine.

When you respond, reflect on what you’re partner is saying:

“What I’m hearing is…..”

“It sounds like…..”

And ask questions to clarify

“What do you mean when you say….?”

“Can you give an example of ….. ?”

Remember to let them know what you are feeling, too. This is a great time to talk about both of your needs, desires, frustrations, insecurities, and anxieties on the topic. You want this to be an open dialogue, not a one-way “you talk and I’ll listen”. Keep the conversation relevant – don’t bring up irrelevant things from the past. For example, if you’re talking about financial stress, don’t bring up family issues. Relationship fights are made worse by losing direction so keep the focus on your original goal.

Address Your Feelings Not Just Your Opinions

If the discussion isn’t making progress, there’s a good way to communicate this to your partner while letting them know you still care. Instead of saying “I feel like this conversation isn’t going anywhere, we’re just going around in circles” (opinion), say something along the lines of “I feel (feeling: frustrated) that (what’s happening: we don’t seem to be making progress) because I want (desired result: for us to be okay). Oftentimes opinion-based arguments can result in a stalemate. Look below the surface for the feelings at play. Try on a little empathy for your partner’s perspective: Based on their words and reaction, what are they probably feeling. Reflect this approach with your words, “I imagine that when ___ happens, it feels ____ because ____. Am I close?”

Relationship Fights Don’t Have to Go On Forever

Resolving conflict takes time, but it is important that you and your conversation partner are able to have open dialogues about your feelings. Relationship fights are normal and nobody is perfect at handling conflict, but learning how to articulate your feelings as well as how to hear and adapt to your partner’s feelings are essential to a healthy, lasting relationship. The conversation will be uncomfortable — conflict always is — but mindfully expressing the feelings behind the conflict reinforces the safe and healthy connection in your relationship. If you and your partner find yourselves going around and around and unable to implement the above strategies, call in reinforcements! Estes Therapy is here so that you can learn to address conflict in a healthy way.

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It’s been nearly 20 years since I first became interested in studying psychotherapy. I began practicing the scientific approaches to psychotherapy in 1997 and I was hooked from then on.

I earned my Master’s Degree in Marriage and Family psychotherapy in 2004 and I am currently licensed as a Marriage and Family Therapist MFT (LMFT#47653) with the Board of Behavioral Sciences (BBS).

I focus my practice upon the empirically-based and proven research methods of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

I’ve seen these techniques consistently get results and I truly believe they are the most effective at creating positive, long-term change.

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