Having a fight with your spouse is a stressful, upsetting experience that can leave you bewildered, frustrated and feeling stuck. In this episode, we want to give you a straightforward strategy that you can use to help break yourselves out of a downward spiral of increasing conflict and unhappiness.
The Issue: Rumination and Negative Cycles
A single argument is unlikely to have huge negative effects on a marriage. The problem is that after an argument couples tend to ruminate over it for a long time. You might keep going over and reliving the arguments in your minds, causing you to feel upset and angry with your spouse all over again.
Sometimes you will get “stuck” in this rumination to the point where a single fight can continue to affect you for a long time afterwards[i].
That’s an issue because this leads to negative reciprocity. Meaning, next time there is the possibility of conflict, one or both of you are still feeling angry about the previous fight. You therefore react more strongly to the current issue and you may bring up past hurts as well, causing the conflict to escalate. Perhaps your spouse says something hurtful or brings up a past annoyance, and you retaliate in kind. This happens more and more as time goes on[ii].
Don’t miss this point: this pattern of negative rumination and reciprocity has been identified as the biggest reason that marital quality declines over time as a result of conflict[iii]. It’s not the fight itself that damages your marriage: it’s the way you hold onto the hurt and keep bringing it up again and again. Rumination and holding on to past hurts also has negative personal consequences such as low mood, higher stress levels, higher blood pressure and reduced physical health[iv]. So it has cascading effects to other parts of your wellbeing.
The Best Thing To Do After a Fight: Break This Negative Cycle
Stopping this cycle of rumination and reciprocity lets the negative feelings end when the fight ends.
This means that the negativity and upset stop affecting your mood and will not influence how you react next time a potential conflict situation arises. Letting go of rumination also makes it much easier to make up with your spouse and resolve the conflict issue[v].
You will not always be able to prevent conflict from happening, but by breaking this cycle you can “draw a line” after it happens to ensure it does not keep affecting you.
Ok, you’re sold: now, how do you do this?
How To Break The Negative Cycle
1) Cool Off
Immediately after a fight our brains tend to be in self defense “fight or flight” mode, which makes thinking calmly and rationally very difficult. That’s the normal physiological response to a distressing event. To compensate for that, give yourselves time to cool off before you come back together to resolve the issue[vi].
For Christian couples, prayer can be a good way to help cool off from an argument as well. Research has shown that this can also make conflict resolution easier[vii].
Praying Through Conflict
Once again we’ve created a bonus guide for our much-appreciated supporters. This one looks more closely at how you can use prayer to strategically intervene in the conflict you’re experiencing by bringing you a healthier mindset, calming yourself down, and finding the wisdom you need in order to reconcile. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
2) Reappraise The Conflict
The best way to stop yourself getting stuck in rumination and bitterness is to think back over the argument from a different perspective and reappraise what happened. A research study from 2013[viii] tested this by training couples to imagine what their argument would have looked like if a neutral friend was watching them.
Here’s what they taught their study participants: “Think about this disagreement with your partner from the perspective of a neutral third party who wants the best for all involved; a person who sees things from a neutral point of view. How might this person think about the disagreement? How might he or she find the good that could come from it?[ix]”
What they found in the results of their study is that using this technique, couples were able to re-evaluate the argument and see more clearly if they were being irrational or hurtful. They were also more able to see things from their spouse’s perspective and therefore had more empathy towards them. That is a huge benefit.
In the study, couples who did not use the reappraising technique experienced a decline in marital satisfaction due to conflict, but couples who did use the technique did not. Meaning that if you can learn to step outside your own perspective and reappraise the situation like this, conflict stops impacting your marriage there and then.
Now, in our show we always tell you the truth. We give you research based advice. But we need to also tell you that this approach is challenging. It can be difficult to pause and step away from your own arguments and see your personal issues from an outside perspective. That’s a difficult skill to develop. But with practice, you can learn to do this very effectively.
3) Forgive and Be Forgiven
Once you are able to see the situation from an outside perspective it is much easier to forgive your spouse for the ways they may have upset you, and it is also easier to recognize the things you did to upset them.
Come back together when you are both ready and make amends and forgive each other. Seeing things from the outside perspective makes you much more empathic to each other’s perspectives, which makes you both much more willing to forgive[x]
4) Resolve the Real Issue
Once you see things from a perspective other than your own, it becomes much easier to resolve the original issue that caused the argument. But often you need to go deeper and address the unresolved issue underneath[xi].
Usually there is a deeper issue at stake. If you can uncover this and have a conversation about it, you’ll also be better positioned to avoid future arguments.
For example if the issue which sparked the argument was about who should do the dishes, the “real” issue may be that one of you feels unappreciated or feels that the balance of housework is unfair. Addressing this deeper issue and agreeing on how to resolve it will ensure that this problem is put to rest once and for all.
As always, if you and your spouse have been stuck in conflict for a long time, we do have top shelf marriage therapists on staff at OnlyYouForever who would be glad to meet with you both. We can help you create a loving, kind marriage where conflict is resolved much more quickly, with much less distress, and the overall tone and experience of your marriage becomes one of joy and contentment rather than distress and upset. To begin making that change today, hit that Get In Touch link at the top of the screen and send us a note. We’ll get right back to you and get you some help right away.
[i] Eli J. Finkel et al., “A Brief Intervention to Promote Conflict Reappraisal Preserves Marital Quality Over Time,” Psychological Science 24, no. 8 (August 1, 2013): 1595–1601, https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797612474938.
[ii] Finkel et al.
[iii] Finkel et al.
[iv] Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet et al., “Transforming or Restraining Rumination: The Impact of Compassionate Reappraisal versus Emotion Suppression on Empathy, Forgiveness, and Affective Psychophysiology,” The Journal of Positive Psychology 10, no. 3 (2015): 248–61, https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2014.941381.
[v] vanOyen Witvliet et al.
[vi] Robert Taibbi, “After an Argument: The Right Way to Make Up,” Psychology Today, 2018, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fixing-families/201806/after-argument-the-right-way-make.
[vii] Mark H. Butler, Brandt C. Gardner, and Mark H. Bird, “Not Just a Time-Out: Change Dynamics of Prayer for Religious Couples in Conflict Situations,” Family Process 37, no. 4 (1998): 451–78, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1545-5300.1998.00451.x.
[viii] Finkel et al., “A Brief Intervention to Promote Conflict Reappraisal Preserves Marital Quality Over Time.”
[ix] Finkel et al.
[x] vanOyen Witvliet et al., “Transforming or Restraining Rumination.”
[xi] Taibbi, “After an Argument.”