Jason and Kate had one of those Saturday late-night arguments last night…again. It wasn’t one of their worst, but it left them both feeling raw. The next morning was awkward, that circling around each other in the kitchen as they got coffee. One of them finally mumbled an apology, the other did the same, both trying to just put it behind them. Case closed.
There are a lot of ways couples try to mop up after an argument: Jason and Kate’s mumbled apologies; for others the make-up sex, or the several days of deep-freeze where no one talks until it somehow gradually defrosts, but where nothing more is said, and things go back to “normal”.
Disagreements are bound to flare up in any close relationship, and there are two parts to it. At the front-end is about the way the argument unfolds. This is about balance and containment. The balance is exactly that, that both partners need to feel safe enough to speak up. What doesn’t work is when there isn’t that balance — where one person dominates the conversation, rants and bullies and the other person shuts down. Or when both shut down, or worse, rarely bring up problems at all. Instead these couples keep everyday-conversations superficial, both walk on eggshells, and they use distance to avoid conflict.
Containment is about keeping the disagreement in emotional bonds — where it doesn’t turn into WWIII, where each person is digging up the past to throw more wood on the emotional fire. This is where hurtful things are said, where things get physical, creating emotional or even physical scars that don’t go away, that create more fear, more resentment, fodder for the future arguments to come.
But then there is the back-side of the argument, the making-up. Here’s what you don’t want to do:
Don’t pretend it didn’t happen
Here Jason and Kate skip the apologies and get up on Sunday morning and pretend that what happened last night didn’t.
Don’t continue to punish the other guy
Here you do the silent treatment not because you don’t know how to make-up, but because it’s your way of punishing and essentially continuing the argument in another form. Here folks throw in passive-aggressive behaviors to rub salt into the other’s wounds.
Don’t do the deep-freeze
Even if it’s not about punishment, but anxiety and awkwardness, the deep-freeze creates an awful climate in the relationship and home that becomes a blink contest and is particularly harmful for children who have to walk on eggshells and often naturally and erroneously believe that it is somehow about what they did wrong.
Don’t not apologize
Apologizing is not about saying that the other person is right, i.e., you’re wrong and she wins the argument, but simply about acknowledging the you hurt the other’s feelings. Apologies are simply about taking responsibility for your side of the argument.
Doing It Right: So what to do instead?
You want to cool off in order to get your rational brain back online. If you try to talk too soon, you are likely to trigger each other once again. That said, couples usually differ in how much time they need to calm down, men often longer. If you not ready yet to come back and make-up simply say that — one sentence – I’m still upset, I’m not trying to ignore you, I just need more time to cool off.
Go back and solve the problem that started the argument
The dishes left on the counter, the money spent on shoes or video-games, the time the kids need to get to bed. This is where it is easy to fall down. Jason and Kate say they’re sorry but don’t return to the topic. Why? Because they are afraid it will only turn into another fight. The challenge is to go back and talk about it, solve the problem, rather than sweeping it under the rug.
Your job at this point is to stay sane — pretend you’re at work and act as you would if a coworker did something that bothered you. Resist the urge to plow back into the argument, the you said, no I didn’t, if you hadn’t said, etc. Move forward — figure out a plan for dealing with the dishes, the expenses, the bedtime. If it gets hot again, stop, cool off, try again, or write down your solution to the problem, then circle back and talk again.
Figure out the moral of the story of the argument
You want to fix the problem so it doesn’t keep coming up, but you also want to learn something that the argument can teach you about communication and often the underlying source of the problem. Some questions to ask yourself:
Is there are deeper issue underlying the problem?
The dishes are not about dishes but about feeling criticized a lot, or feeling like the other person doesn’t hear you and dismisses your requests, or feeling like you are Cinderella and the other person isn’t doing her share of the work; ditto for money. Bedtime — different parenting styles or a power struggle about parenting, or something else? Be curious, dig down, look for the larger pattern that makes the argument merely the tip of the iceberg, then have a conversation about this bigger stuff.
Why did it turn into an argument at all rather than conversation?
Was there something that the other guy did that pushed your buttons? Talk about that.
Was it because you were both tired and cranky already, or that it was late at night, you both had a couple of drinks, not the best time to bring stuff up? Talk about that and how to do it differently.
Was it because you were holding things in for a long time and finally blew up? If so, talk about what you need to feel safe to bring things up sooner.
Was it because you both had been feeling disconnected from each other, and somehow had subconsciously developed this pattern of picking a fight so you could then have make-up sex or cuddly make-up and get recalibrated? Talk about how catch the disconnection sooner and have better ways of bringing you both closer.
The goals here are clear: Solve the problem, learn from the experience so you don’t keep repeating it. The challenge is having the courage to do so, to step up (or step down), and approach your anxiety rather than avoiding it.
It’s about skills, it’s about learning to do it right.