Understanding Fights and Recovery Conversations
When couples get into arguments the chances are that both will be hurt by the experience and see it as harming the relationship. Typically one partner will accuse the other of a lapse or transgression that the other will defend or counterattack. Whilst no one really likes to fight, or the long-term consequences of arguing, it can be hard to back down in the middle of a conflict.
Dan Wile (1993) says that when people argue they fail to acknowledge the following factors:
1) Couples are not good at fighting – a fight can be thought of as two people each trying to get their point of view across to the other. Unfortunately, the more each tries to get their point across, the less they listen to the point their partner is trying to communicate. The language and areas of dispute broaden as the argument escalates through various levels of attack:
Level 1: criticising behaviour (‘you shouldn’t do that’),
Level 2: criticising feelings (‘you shouldn’t feel like that’),
Level 3: criticising character (‘this is the sort of person you are’),
Level 4: making critical interpretations (‘and this is why you’re like that’),
Level 5 criticising intentions (‘this is what you want, isn’t it, to destroy us’)
2) Couples do not know, or want to know, they are fighting – as far as each partner is concerned they do not want to fight, but they do want very badly to get their point across and to defend themselves against the accusations their partner seems to be making. Each believes that they could get their point across if only their partner weren’t being so defensive, accusatory, stubborn or unfeeling. Each is telling themselves, ‘I’m not fighting, I don’t want to fight, and if you’d just stop fighting for a moment I could tell you something really important’.
3) Even if they were to know they’re fighting, couples would not want to admit it – because both partners believe that it’s the other who’s responsible for the fight that then becomes another point of contention. Both partners have a lot invested in maintaining the idea that they’re being reasonable. Eventually neither is sure what the fight is about any more or how things got so bad between them.
4) Couples think it is bad to fight – the aftermath of a fight usually leaves bad feeling between the partners as each tries to deal with the hurtful things their partner has said and feels remorse and guilt for the things they said that they wish they could take back. Neither is likely to feel they have made any progress in getting their needs met or having their partner hear and appreciate the point they were trying to make.
John Gottman’s research (1999) makes it clear that pretty much all couples fight, even happy ones. What happy couples in lasting relationships seem to be able to do is maintain positive regard for their partner in a fight so that they recover from it more quickly.
Dan Wile describes the importance of having a recovery conversation after a fight to help heal the wounds it leaves, but points out that this is not easy. He describes seven principles to bear in mind when trying to bring a fight to an end and start a process of recovery:
1) ‘You’ statements: even if a fight has reached a stalemate making ‘you’ statements will rekindle it because they sound accusatory and are in fact forms of attack. No one feels like backing down when they feel criticised. Making ‘I’ statements gives a couple a chance of not rekindling the fight.
2) Taking your partner’s point of view: ‘I’ statements are an attempt to get your partner to appreciate your point of view – however if your partner doesn’t yet feel that you already appreciate their point of view they may not be in a state of mind to start to hear what you’re saying. In fact many so-called ‘I’ statements are actually ‘you’ statements in disguise. Just putting ‘I feel’ in front of a criticism doesn’t make it any less of an attack.
3) Nice-guy backlash: when one partner makes an attempt to heal the rift caused by the argument (what John Gottman calls a “repair bid”) it may be that their partner is not ready to take their point of view on board – they’re still so hurt from the argument that all they want is to be heard and acknowledged. The ‘nice-guy backlash’ refers to the sense of hurt and anger that comes from making a repair attempt and appearing to have it snubbed or ignored. It can feel like a slap in the face and lead to the argument flaring up again and even escalating.
4) Expecting to rekindle the fight: John Gottman suggests that during a fight a number of these bids will be made and either not noticed or ignored so it is likely that the fight will flare up again. Dan Wile suggests that couples take this into account when thinking how to deal with the aftermath of a fight so that they can plan and prepare for it. He suggests that just recognising that your partner is not in a state of mind to accept your repair bid may help people to deal with the implied rejection.
5) Looking for the missing piece: If your partner is not listening to you the chances are that it’s because there’s something they need to say, or to figure out, before they’re ready to hear your point of view. There’s something metaphorically stuck in their throat that’s taking all their attention and they’re not ready to move on just yet.
6) Two conflicting missing pieces: In fact at any moment in a fight both people have something stuck in their throat that they need to have heard and acknowledged. The problem is that each partner needs the other to hear what he or she has to say before they’re willing to listen to what their partner has to say – the result is an impasse.
7) Talking about only your contribution to the fight: Once partners are able to respond to a repair bid without anger or hurt the way to defuse the fight and recover from it is for each to talk only about their own part in the fight. If you try to talk about your partner’s part in the fight – no matter how objectively – they will talk about your part in the fight and the fight will start again. Any hint of blame can start things off. On the other hand if you talk about your contribution to the fight the chances are your partner will talk about their part in the fight.
John Gottman (1999) has a repair checklist that couples can use both in the heat of the moment and after a fight to get close to each other again.
1) Tell your partner how you feel: e.g. “I’m getting scared”, “that hurt my feelings” or “I’m feeling blamed, could you rephrase that?”
2) Tell your partner that you need to calm down: e.g. “I’d like things to be calmer right now”, “can I take that back”, or “this is important to me, please listen”
3) Apologise e.g. say “Sorry”, “let me try again”, “how can I make things better”, or “let me try again”.
4) Stop the action e.g. “Let’s take a break”, “Please stop”, or “Give me a moment”
5) Get to “Yes” e.g. “Let’s compromise here”, “I agree with part of what you’re saying”, or “I never thought of things that way”
6) Express appreciation e.g. “I know this isn’t your fault”, “My part of the problem is…”, or Thank you for…”
Remember that often these are the things you least feel like saying or doing in a conflict, which is when they are most needed. Practice and praise yourself for each attempt you make, even if it’s not perfect. Try to teat yourself and each other with as much kindness as you can.
Andrew Grimmer, 2012
Gottman, J. M. (1999). The marriage clinic: A scientifically-based marital therapy. New York, NY: WW Norton & Company.
Wile, D. B. (1993). After the fight: A night in the life of a couple. New York, NY: Guilford Press.