If you’ve been in a relationship for any length of time, you’ve had “The Big One.” If you haven’t had “the big one” yet, it’s probably really early in your relationship. In that case, buckle up. It’s coming. You know what “the big one” is, right? It’s the epic relationship battle to end all battles (or at least it feels that way). Actually, it’s probably misleading to call it the “big ONE” since it’s more likely that you’ve had the “big one” on more than one occasion. And for some, “the big one” is an unfortunate albeit predictably frequent event.
I’m talking here about those fights that drain all of your good energy leaving you somewhere between devastated, enraged, hopeless and determined to show the other person just how perfectly silent the silent treatment can be!
Don’t get me wrong, I am not attempting to oversimplify the emotional carnage that results from these conflicts. They have complex origins and outcomes. These blowups, even if they are infrequent, can be extremely destructive to the feelings of trust and security that make relationships healthy and resilient. They eat away at the tendencies to turn toward each other for comfort and refuge. Additionally, over time they can erode the sense of mutual regard, concern and hope for relationship success.
In light of the long-term effects of these cataclysmic moments, here are some tips on how to come back after one of those really difficult arguments has occurred.
1. Go Beneath the Surface
Whenever couples begin to list their complaints or issues in therapy, I’m always listening through the complaints to hear the patterns of emotions that emerge. “He goes to sleep with the light on every night and I have to get up and walk to the other side of the bed to turn it off.” “She’s always complaining about not having enough money but she just went shopping two days go.” Believe it or not, little things like these turn into major problems for some couples. Why?
Because it’s almost never about the things that the other partner is complaining about. When arguments emerge, they have a particular pattern that is not connected to the specific behavior, attitude or situation the other person is describing. There’s usually some underlying thought or feeling that is represented by the complaints they list.
For example, the wife might say, “You never call me to tell me that you’re gonna be late getting home. I cooked dinner, the kids and I were waiting and you didn’t call. You’re so selfish.” She actually means, “I worked hard today just like you did and I wanted us to have dinner as a family. When you don’t make family dinner a priority, it feels like we aren’t really important to you. A phone call would’ve at least shown that you were thinking about us.” In other words, it’s not that he didn’t make it for dinner and didn’t call. There is an emotion beneath the surface. She feels unimportant. And its likely that there are other instances in the relationship that evoke the same emotions of neglect.
It’s deeper than what surfaces in the argument. Try to step back for a moment, and ask yourself, “What is he or she really upset about? She can’t be this mad because I didn’t do the dishes when I got home.” Or “He can’t be this angry because my ex commented on my Facebook post.” Chances are, she’s really not upset about the dirty dishes. He’s probably not really bent out of shape because your ex commented on your selfie. It’s possible that the dishes represent her feelings of being taken for granted and needing to feel like a partner and not a maid. His complaint about your ex might indicate his insecurity because he doesn’t feel as attractive since he’s put on a few pounds. It’s always worth an inquiry to see what’s really happening on a deeper level.
2. Take Responsibility
Now, I know this one can be hard to accept and I should emphasize that I don’t mean it’s your fault entirely, all the time, and in every case. I’m absolutely not talking about any type of physical, emotional or verbal abuse. You should never, ever take responsibility for someone else’s abuse.
I simply mean that when you have that huge, crazy fight, those can be tough to come back from. I’m not suggesting that one person isn’t more at fault than the other. If you both are clapping back at each other and it’s gone too far and you’ve said or done some bad things that you regret, just own up.
Accept responsibility for your part. It doesn’t matter who started it. It doesn’t matter who said the more hurtful thing. You were there and you were participating and that means some of it’s your fault. Neither of you is perfect and it’s okay to accept that truth and acknowledge it to your spouse.
At the end of the day, it’s simply smarter and more mature to say, “hey, last night was crazy and I said some horrible crap and I’m really sorry.” Granted, this takes a fair amount of humility to admit that you didn’t handle a situation with enough care or concern. It’s tough to acknowledge that you let your feelings get the best of you and it clouded your judgment. Truth is, it happens to the best of us. Sometimes we can avoid the trap and not fall into that negative pattern and other times we get caught off guard.
Coming back to take responsibility lets your partner know that you are aware of your own flaws and weaknesses. It also lets them know that you don’t feel superior to them. People are much more forgiving of those who can quickly acknowledge how much they need to be forgiven. A heartfelt, remorseful apology can work wonders for your relationship.
3. Make the First Move
Sometimes it can feel risky to reach out especially after you’ve said or done some really shameful things. The fear of rejection can rob you of the opportunity to build equity in your relationship. When you make the first move, it can be an invaluable gesture toward reconciliation. Growing up, we saw classic examples played out in television shows and movies, remember? The husbands would buy flowers and/or jewelry after a mistake or argument. The wife would cook her guy’s favorite meal or put on some lingerie as a peace-making gesture. The flowers, the jewelry, the meal all say the same thing “I’m sorry.” By the way, nothing beats actually saying the words! And if you say them first, so much the better. It’s easy to say “I’m sorry too” but its awesome to say “I’m sorry” first.
The gesture doesn’t have to be grand. It only has to be sincere. Sometimes tickling works. No, seriously, it can. Other times, not so much. You’ll know what feels authentic for you. Making the first move can be as easy as cracking a joke to lighten the mood. That first move communicates that even though you’re angry, and maybe with legitimate reasons, you won’t let the anger overshadow your commitment to your partnership. Small gestures after, or even during an argument, remind your partner that the relationship won’t end because you don’t see eye to eye on this issue.
Even if you’re not the first to make a move toward your partner, by all means reach back when they reach out. These moves build security and confidence so your partner doesn’t assume it’s over because you had a horrible fight.
4. Stop Demanding to be Right
When we insist on being right we set up a competition in which neither person wins. Almost all of us will agree there are degrees of rightness. Rightness doesn’t have to be an absolute phenomenon. It’s possible for both of you to be partially right. And what’s the harm if you happen to be wrong?
Your partner will not respect you any less because you’re wrong about the fastest way to the restaurant or which actress starred in a particular movie. However, they will be drawn toward you when you can say with humility and admiration, “You’re right.” Many people blow it right here. We just know we’re right. Therefore, the other person has to be wrong and we can’t move forward until it is clear to the other person that we are right and they are wrong. Here’s the problem. When you always have to be right, eventually you will always have to be alone. Being a know-it-all repels people.On the other hand, curiosity draws them closer to you.
Think about it. It’s extremely arrogant to believe that there is only one empirically correct perspective and that you always have it. Instead, the goal should always be to hear and understand the other. When each of you is diligently trying to understand the other, a beautiful curiosity emerges and offers an opportunity to see inside your lover. When we make judgments about what we think the other is feeling, we forfeit an opportunity to deepen our intimacy and learn something new. Suspend the need to be right and try being open to learning something about your significant other that you didn’t know before.