Maybe it started with a snide comment or passive-aggressive sigh. Or maybe the why-do-you-always-take-the-kids-side argument turned into an hour long fight that touched on everything. Whatever happened, things escalated. Tempers flared, frustrations were vented, eyes were rolled, feelings were hurt. Eventually, you lost your cool and called your wife a bitch.
This, of course, isn’t great. But it happened. Now what?
Fights happen. They’re necessary. But these small fights and spats sometimes gather and form into bomb cyclones of arguments where curses fly. Assuming that a husband understands the line he crossed when he used such language and wants to bridge the gap between himself and his partner, the first thing that needs to happen, according to Dr. George Ball, a marriage counselor in Dallas, Texas, is to take a break.
“The important thing to remember, after an argument gets to that level of heated-ness, is the concept of repair,” Ball says. “You have to get the relationship back to neutral as quickly as possible.”
For many couples, this means taking time to settle down. Ball refers to it as ‘physiological self-soothing.’ That really just means walking away, taking deep breaths, and waiting until your heart rate drops back to a normal beat. This kind of break can take five minutes. It could take all night. It could even take a day or two. But the most important part of this practice that both partners come back to the conversation.
Now, when the conversation does take place, the person who crossed the line needs to come clean. But they don’t want to explain why they said it. “It is often times easy to say ‘I’m sorry I did this. Here’s the reason why I did,’” says Ball. “When you’re trying to reconnect and repair, do not justify your behavior. Apologize and let that sit.”
This is hard. Even if they feel as though they were within their right to say what they said, there should be no attempt at justification — a sign of defensiveness, which is one of relationship guru Dr. John Gottman’s “Four Horsemen,” — the quartet of communication styles that are damaging to a relationship.
The truth is this: Everyone says things in an argument that they later regret. Saying that they didn’t mean the words doesn’t dull their impact.
“It’s important to take ownership for the things you said out of anger,” Anna Osborn, a family therapist in California, previously told us. “Don’t focus on what your partner said, as that will deflect from responsibility for your own actions. Typically when one partner is able to do this, the other is more willing to follow suit by owning their part of the argument.”
It’s also smart to familiarize yourself with — and do your best to avoid — Gottman’s other horsemen: criticism, contempt, and stonewalling. Saying, for instance, “But I hate when you act like this,” or, “You do this all the time” when trying to apologize for a misstep is is criticism masked as an apology and does nothing to heal the situation at hand. The same goes for any sort of eye-rolling or dismissive behavior, which comes off as contempt. If they stop listening to a partner’s feelings after they apologize, that’s a big sign of stonewalling. All of these behaviors can foster resentment, which can stall any mending and put them right back where they started.
Of course, the only way such Defcon 1 affairs that end in slammed doors and shit-talk is to avoid letting get their in the first place. To do this, Ball says couples need to find a solution-based approach that works best for their dynamic.
For example, he says that setting 30-minute timers during tough conversations and giving each other built-in breaks helps keep tempers low and conversations productive. Using “I” statements is also useful, as this simple pronoun flip helps make intentions clearer up front and that the one speaking is simply explaining their feelings and not on the attack.
Certain couples, he says, may need to string the discussion out over a few days if need be. This doesn’t mean clamming up and walking away in the middle of a heated discussion (hello, stonewalling). It means recognizing when a conversation is heading for implosion and agreeing to pick it up at another time.
We all have this ingrained idea that arguments need to be resolved right away. But complex issues require complex solutions. And complex solutions need time. Ball says he once worked with a couple that had to take 19 breaks (19!) before they were able to reach a resolution. While he says they were upset at the number of time outs they had to take, they reached a solution without screaming and lobbing insults.
“I don’t care if you have to take 100 breaks,” Ball says. “Take the time that is necessary to maintain an even-keel, physiologically. When your heart is beating, that is going to affect the things that you say, and that is going to affect your nonverbals. You’ve got to remain calm.”
And once a fight happens, both partners would do well to see it for what it is: an education. “A major fight is an opportunity to get to know each other better, and feel closer,” Jasmin Terrany, LMHC, a life therapist and the author of Extraordinary Mommy suggested. “As painful as fighting can be, there something open and beautiful about the willingness to let your feelings out.”