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You Just Fought: Now What? 3 Steps to Repair After a Fight

Conflict is an inevitable part of every relationship, putting us at odds and out of sorts with the ones we love most.

Close intimate friendships that were once good-natured and friendly are now marked with disharmony, disconnect and hurt feelings. How do you repair the relationship after the argument, and restore the intimacy you once had?

Researchers who study such things (God bless them) have found that everyone quarrels with someone. The good news? Experts say that one third of our continuing disagreements are about resolvable issues. The bad? It is the other two thirds that seem to cause the greatest problems. These “unresolvable” conflicts are also normal, stemming from the fact that we each are uniquely created, and see the world through a tinted, personalized lens.

Conflict has numerous causes: misunderstanding, poor communication, unmet expectations, value differences, past hurts and future fears. The end result is we get snippy, grouchy, quiet, short, or surly, and we can be a bear to be around.

For example, my wife is outgoing and loves to entertain, while I prefer my home to be a castle, preferably guarded by a deep and wide moat. A common conversation (joined in by ALEXA, our ever-listening Amazon Echo) goes something like this:

Alisa: “So you want to go out with the Smith’s for dinner and movie tomorrow night?”

Me: “Uhhh…, hmmm…, no, not really.”

Alisa: “Come on it, will be fun!”

Me: “Didn’t we just go out with them last week?”

Alisa: “No, that was three years ago, and we saw Ocean’s Eleven. Ocean’s Twenty is now playing.”

Me: “Twenty? Did they skip a few ocean’s? That can’t be right. ALEXA, what is playing at the movies tonight?”

ALEXA: Ocean’s Twenty is now playing near you. Do you want me to buy tickets?”

Alisa: “Yes!”

Me: “No!”

ALEXA: “Sorry, I do not understand you.”

Me: “Can’t we watch all 20 Oceans here on Netflix, in the peace and comfort of our little home?”

Alisa: “Come on Castle-Boy, it will be fun. We are getting pale from not seeing the sun, and I am starting to look like a ghost.”  

Me: “They make ‘tan-in-a-can’ for that, you know.”

ALEXA: “Would you like me to order more ‘tan-in-a-can’?”

Me: Yes!

Alisa: NO!

If we could listen to all of Alexa’s recordings, we would find this truism: it is not how much conflict you have, it is how you manage it, and it is not what we argue about—events like going out, being late, or how money is being spent—that is the critical issue. It is the hidden emotions or feelings that underlie and are driving the conflict that need to be talked about and managed.

It is not how much conflict you have, it is how you manage it. It is the hidden emotions or feelings that underlie and are drivin the conflict that need to be talked about and managed.

Alisa enjoys fellowship and maintaining friendships, and fears that getting disconnected could leave her (and us) isolated and lonely. She also loves adventure, and living in a too-protected castle can be maddening. And she hates feeling powerless, controlled, or unable to change her situation. My actions can often make her feel these things. I seek safety and security, and want to avoid feeling hurt or abandoned. Sometimes her actions make me feel these things.

So now what? The uncomfortable silence and cold-shoulder interactions are even worse than the fight, because at least then there was some communication.

Here are three steps to take to restore the intimacy after you have had the “tan-in-a-can” argument.

Step 1: Pause and Pray

We need to start with a pause and a prayer before anything else. The psalmist says,

Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts; And see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way. (Ps. 139:23-24)

Pray for calm, and wisdom, and a heart that is prepared to learn and gain a deeper understanding. Remember that it is in the midst of our differences that we have a golden opportunity. The apostle John says:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35 

It is during difficult times, where there are real differences, that we must learn to show real love—a love that the world can see—even when it feels impossible to do it on your own.

It is during difficult times, where there are real differences, that we must learn to show real love—a love that the world can see—even when it feels impossible to do it on your own.

Step 2: Process and Know Thy Heart

Brain scans of couples arguing showed the amygdala (emotional part of brain) was lit up. When couples named the exact emotions that they were feeling (see word list below), it moved the information to the prefrontal cortex (decision/problem-solving part of brain).

  • Unloved
  • Disrespected
  • Rejected
  • Failure
  • Abandoned
  • Controlled
  • Disconnected
  • Helpless
  • Inadequate
  • Invalidated
  • Devalued
  • Worthless
  • Judged
  • Unimportant
  • Don’t measure up
  • Not good enough

Being aware of hidden issues and emotions can defuse high conflict situations and soften disagreements. This lowers the energy and anger of the moment, and helps people better process what is going on in their heart, all very helpful in ultimately resolving the disagreement.

Each of us becoming aware of these things opens the door to successfully repairing after an argument.  Whether you end up feeling hurt, discouraged, and defeated, or renewed and hopeful, depends on this key step.

Step 3: Take the Other’s Perspective

“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each person’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Any serious discussion about unity—its meaning, purpose, telos—must begin with God’s unseen presence, “…that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us…” John 17:21

This step is the cultivating of social intelligence (perspective taking) as related to your partner. This critical step starts with trying to see the world through the other’s eyes, and temporarily setting aside your own views to understand how they see reality. Are you able to describe the conversation from their point of view? If they heard your description would they be satisfied? As you describe their point of view, how does your tone come across (sarcastic, condescending, or respectful)? Here are some other questions that will help with perspective-taking:

Empathy: Do you understand what motivates your partner, even when from different backgrounds? Are you sensitive to your partner’s needs?

Attunement: Do you listen attentively and think about how she feels? Are you attuned to his moods?

Awareness: Do you appreciate her culture, values and unique experiences? Do you understand his social networks and unspoken norms?

 Influence: Do you persuade him by engaging in discussion and appealing to her self-interests? Do you seek a win/win solution?

In Summary

  • Prayer helps us to create space to calm down and reflect.
  • Listen so that your partner feels understood. Compassion increases as you take their perspective, and try to let your heart be “touched” by their emotions.
  • Identify the hidden issues and hurt feelings. (These feelings should not be judged as good or bad, right or wrong, but as information on the status or condition of our soul.)  
  • Soften any hurtful responses, making interactions emotionally and physically safe, free from chronic negative patterns such as yelling, contempt, criticism, or defensiveness.
  • Care for the other’s heart. The goal is to show you care about their feelings, emotions, and heart, to walk in their shoes. Such is the basis for empathy and intimacy in relationships – that we value each other more than ourselves (Philippians 2:3-4).

Each of us has conflict with someone that we are in a relationship with. What distinguishes successful couples from the others is following the above steps, starting with prayer, and getting to a place where we can hear God’s voice behind us saying, “This is the way you should go" (Isaiah 30:21).