One of the most important skills you can learn to better manage conflict is how to make a repair AFTER you’ve had a fight, big or little. I’ll tell you right now, just saying you’re sorry is not going to cut it. In fact, even if you do get off the hook by simply apologizing, you won’t learn anything about how to improve things in the future. In my work with couples, we’ll take several sessions to build a kind of template, the “Aftermath of a Fight” exercise. Developed by Dr. John Gottman, the technique gives a way to talk over emotions and background issues after a recent argument in a more compassionate and productive way. By recent, I mean some time after the fight, when you’re no longer flooded with feelings. (For more about flooding and how to self-soothe, please see my video linked below.)
Although at first, you may feel awkward, you’ll find that the exercise becomes more automatic with practice. You won’t have to go down the same rabbit hole with every disagreement. You’ll be able to understand each other better, and not just repair the current situation but also help prevent future arguments.
The guiding idea of the Aftermath of a Fight exercise is that there is no absolute reality in any relationship conflict, but rather two subjective realities or points of view. Both are right. By using the six key components of a post-fight debriefing, you’ll have to help you to process without getting back into the fight.
“There is no absolute reality in a disagreement, but rather there are two subjective realities and points of view”
Aftermath of a Fight or Disagreement Debrief
Let’s look at each of the 6 key components for making effective repairs after a fight:
- What were your feelings during the argument?
- What was your subjective sense or reality about the argument?
- Can you find something you can understand about your partner’s position?
- Are you flooding as you talk about it during the debrief?
- Admit your role. What was your contribution to the fight?
- How can you each make it better in the future?
Step 1 is to describe what you were feeling during the argument. It’s important to follow the rules of active listening by using “I” statements — that is, describe simply how you feel without blaming your partner. So, you’d say “I felt worried,” not “You worried me,” or “I felt lonely,” not “You made me feel lonely.” Saying “I felt like you made me feel…” is cheating!
Also, keep Step 1 brief. Avoid the temptation to explain at length, justify yourself, total up points, or add a laundry list of grievances. When that happens, I gently stop the partner and remind them to just say,
“I felt” _________ fill in the blank. PERIOD. Long explanations just make the other partner defensive and get more flooded all over again. Yes, it’s very hard to own your own stuff, and much easier to project onto your partner. But I’ll tell you, that won’t get you anywhere but two steps backward.
I can’t tell you how often I’ve been with couples and seen how, as they listen to their partner express their feelings in a clear and non-blaming way, they react with much deeper empathy and understanding. This alone makes a huge difference.
In Step 2, each of you expresses your subjective reality or point of view in a couple of sentences. Sometimes condensing and consolidating your experience during the fight is an art in itself, because so often we want to bring in everything else that has angered us over the last months, or years! Step 2 gives practice in knowing yourself and using mindful attention to be concise.
Step 3 is about empathy: how well can you understand your partner’s point of view? It can be hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes — even, or maybe especially, your partner. You want to be able to say“I can see how you feel” about such and such, or “It makes sense that you can feel that way.”
In Step 4, you check in with yourself to determine if you’re getting flooded. Many times when couples debrief after a fight, they just get angry all over again, defeating the purpose. In therapy, I might ask at this point if anyone is flooded. If so, I stop the exercise for a few minutes until they can bring their heart rate down and then they can reengage in the discussion. This may seem like a small or unnecessary thing; even experienced couples’ therapists can neglect it. But believe me, it’s crucial. Again, for more information please see my video covering this topic.
Step 5 is admitting how you contributed to the fight. This is one of my favorite steps; from my work with couples, I can say that this alone is eye-opening for both people. It’s also something you can take with you into any other relationships with family and friends.
Admit your role! It is essential that each of you takes some responsibility for what went wrong during your discussion and what made it go sideways. As with Step 1, you’ll also use a simple, brief sentence. For instance, you might say something like “I’ve been very stressed,” or “irritable,” or “overly sensitive,” irritable,” or “I haven’t expressed much appreciation toward my partner lately.” Or “I need to be alone,” or “I haven’t made time for good things between us.”
So often in life, we get caught up in being busy or stuck in our resentments, and we don’t reach out to our partner. Then we’re surprised that they have no idea how we’ve been feeling! The common denominator of Step 5 statements is that they fill in the blanks and show the backdrop to what contributed to the fight.
Finally, in Step 6 you consider how you could do better next time. So, you ask yourself very directly, what is one thing my partner can do differently next time? And what is one thing I can do differently next time? Answering these questions takes some emotional intelligence, first to figure out how you can ask directly for what you need, and then to accept what your partner says would help them.
This is very different from just saying “I’m sorry we got into an argument last night.” I won’t kid you that this is easy. Even though it’s easier in a therapist’s office, it still takes practice at home. I also want to remind you that this repair never works if you get flooded again. That’ll just reignite the original fight, and if this pattern continues, you’ll only compound your difficulty managing conflict and build even more negative feelings about the marriage and your partner.
The example to follow goes something like this: “I want to apologize for my role in our disagreement last night. I’ve been thinking it over and I realize I came on really strong because I was feeling worried about finances. I got worked up and didn’t really listen to what you wanted to say. I can see that you may have felt dismissed by me and I want you to know that I didn’t mean to be dismissive of your ideas for our vacation,” or garden — you fill in the blank. “I think I have been very preoccupied lately with my job stress and I haven’t been giving you much attention and making time for you.“
Overall, then, this is a process, but it’s a powerful one. When I work with couples, I give them a written summary of the steps so they have it handy and can practice it together after a fight. You may need to do it together in a formal way with the six steps a few times, or a few dozen, but it really will become imprinted and integrated into one clear and heartfelt repair.
Try it, and good luck!