How to Stop Fighting and Feel Close Again

Why is it that we fight the most with those we love the most? Is it just because we’re two people with two completely separate minds spending so much time together that we’re bound to not see eye to eye once in a while? Or, is it something more profound, something deeper?

Unfortunately, it’s usually the people we’re closest to who trigger us most emotionally. Our reactions, or overreactions, can therefore be much more tied to our personal history than even to what’s going on in the present moment. Every one of us brings a lot to the table that contributes to the degree of conflict we experience with a partner, including our early attachment patterns, psychological defenses, and critical inner voices about ourselves and others. That is why the key to getting along with our partner is rarely as simple as it sounds. However, the good news is we have a lot of power when it comes to making things better.

Here are some efforts we can take to ease tension and keep feeling close to our partner:

Don’t fester

A study from researchers at the University of California Berkeley and Northwestern University found that “the length of time each member of a couple spent being upset [when in conflict] was strongly correlated with their long-term marital happiness.” This is no great surprise. However, most of us don’t challenge our tendency to ruminate in feelings of being enraged, wronged, or treated unfairly. We may even be drawn to build a case against our partner rather than attempting to understand them, move on, or accept an apology. While we may have a point or be right at times, this drive to wallow in our misery often comes from an unconscious desire to maintain an old, bad feeling about ourselves and our relationships that, although uncomfortable, also feels familiar.

Take the time to calm down

In the heat of the moment, it’s very hard not to be reactive. However, there’s a good reason that five minutes after a fight, we feel more rational and regretful. When we feel triggered by someone in an intense way, this is often a clue that something deeper is being surfaced. The wrong word or a simple look from our partner can tap into old, negative feelings we have about ourselves that make us angry, ashamed, or on the defense. We then react in ways that don’t always fit the situation, and in fact, often escalate it. If we can get ahold of ourselves in that moment of intensity, take a walk or even just a few deep breaths, we can gain some perspective and return to a more rational state of mind. We can remain in the moment, rather than trailing off into our heads, and choose how we want to respond with more awareness and sensitivity to the other person.

Be attuned to yourself

In addition to taking pause, we can try to be curious about what’s going on in our minds and bodies in a moment of tension. There are two exercises that can be helpful in this process (which are made a bit easier to remember by the acronyms SIFT and RAIN). Dr. Daniel Siegel uses SIFTing to describe tuning into the Sensations, Images, Feelings, and Thoughts that we’re experiencing. This helps bring us into the moment, and it’s part of an important first step in what Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn calls RAIN. The steps of RAIN are to 1. Recognize what is happening, 2. Allow or accept what’s going on, 3. Investigate the inner experience (what’s being triggered in you?), and 4. Non-identification, which means not letting yourself over-connect with the experience. This mindful approach allows us to be present and curious toward ourselves and our reactions without letting these reactions take over. In a moment of conflict, we can use this mindfulness exercise to feel calmer and reconnect to ourselves, investigating our reactions but without judgment.

Change from a defensive to a receptive state

When we work on tuning in and calming ourselves down, we can then extend a more curious and compassionate attitude toward our partner. Instead of being focused on defending, reacting, or counterattacking, we can listen and attempt to understand the other person.  “When our entire focus is on self-defense, no matter what we do, we can’t open ourselves enough to hear our partner’s words accurately,” wrote Siegel in Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. “Our state of mind can turn even neutral comments into fighting words, distorting what we hear to fit what we fear.”  The more we can remain in a “receptive state,” being present with our partner and imagining their experience through their eyes, the more we can relax in ourselves and connect to them. We can actually use the experience to feel closer rather than pushing them further away. As Siegel wrote in The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are, “For ‘full’ emotional communication, one person needs to allow his state of mind to be influenced by that of the other.”

Reject the filter of your critical inner voice

Part of the reason we’re so reactive in a given moment is because we often hear or see our partner through the filter of our “critical inner voice.” This “voice” represents a pattern of negative thoughts and distorted ideas we developed about ourselves and others based on hurtful experiences from our early lives. As we grow up, we may expect relationships to mirror those of our past and project our “voices” onto others, especially those closest to us. “All misperceptions or projections, both positive and negative, will generate problems,” wrote Dr. Robert Firestone in The Ethics of Interpersonal Relationships. “People want to be seen and acknowledged for themselves, and distortions cause pain and misunderstanding as well as predisposing angry reactions.” So often, when we’re especially triggered and heated, we are filtering our partner’s words and behavior through our inner critic. For example, when they say, “You haven’t been around lately,” we may hear, “You’re not doing enough. You’re so lazy.” We distort our partner’s point of view to fit with an old image of ourselves, and we react accordingly. That is why to really break a destructive, argumentative cycle, we have to challenge our critical inner voice.

Drop your half of the dynamic

Dr. Lisa Firestone, co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships recommends what she calls “unilateral disarmament” as a tool couples can use to defuse arguments and be close again. “What it involves is momentarily dropping your side of the debate and approaching your partner from a more loving stance,” explained Firestone. “The idea is that when couples have tension between them, perhaps from not communicating successfully or directly, they start to build resentments toward each other, which often reach a tipping point. An argument begins, then escalates based on an overflow of pent-up frustration and flawed communication. Heated moments are, however, the worst times to try to solve problems or make our points heard.” By dropping our half of the dynamic and saying “I care more about being close than winning this argument,” we express a vulnerability that often softens our partner and allows them to feel for us and let their guard down. We can then have a more effective conversation about any real issues in a less intense moment when we both feel more ourselves.

Feel the feeling, but do the right thing

Calming down or dropping our side of a fight in a tense moment doesn’t mean burying our feelings. In fact, Dr. Pat Love author of The Truth about Love suggests we feel our feelings but choose our actions. There are healthy avenues for expressing anger or sadness but also exploring these emotions to understand where they may come from and what they may mean. Emotions offer us clues into who we are. However, in the messiness of a fight, we rarely take the time to sort through and recognize our emotions much less express them in ways that are adaptive or helpful. It’s best to choose our actions, so they align with who we want to be. But we should certainly be curious and accepting of our emotions.

Be vulnerable and express what you want

Les Greenberg, the primary originator of Emotion-Focused Therapy, distinguishes between primary and secondary, adaptive and maladaptive emotion. He points out that often, when couples react to each other, they aren’t necessarily aware of the primary emotion like sadness or shame that maybe triggered, for instance, in a moment of feeling hurt, rejected or not seen. Instead, they experience a secondary emotion like embarrassment or anger, and they act out toward their partner accordingly.

We all experience these types of reactions, and unfortunately, these maladaptive emotional responses don’t get us closer to what we want. However, as Greenberg has suggested, if we can tap into our primary emotion and express the more vulnerable want or need behind it, we show much more vulnerability to our partner. We can communicate that “we want to feel loved or seen for who we are.” Our partner then has an opportunity to know us better and feel for us.

As challenging as it can feel to be vulnerable and let our guard down in a moment of conflict, the more mindful we can be toward ourselves, our emotions, our thoughts, and our actions, the better able we are to interrupt destructive cycles and achieve closeness with our partner. By using these tools of self-reflection, we truly take control over our half of the dynamic and create a safe, welcoming environment for our partner to do the same.

Here are some takeaways that we can apply the next time we enter a conflict with our partner:

  • Take pause (do something else, breathe, meditate, take a walk)
  • Avoid rumination
  • Pay attention to what’s going on inside your body
  • Don’t over-identify with negative thoughts
  • Try to adopt a “receptive” stance
  • Notice any critical inner voices intensifying your response
  • Acknowledge your emotions
  • Explore whether the emotion may be primary, secondary, adaptive, or maladaptive
  • Choose your actions
  • Be open, vulnerable, and direct about what you want
Handling Conflict in Relationships
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About the Author

Carolyn Joyce Carolyn Joyce joined PsychAlive in 2009, after receiving her M.A. in journalism from the University of Southern California. Her interest in psychology led her to pursue writing in the field of mental health education and awareness. Carolyn's training in multimedia reporting has helped support and expand PsychAlive's efforts to provide free articles, videos, podcasts, and Webinars to the public. She now works as an editor for PsychAlive and a communications specialist at The Glendon Association, the non-profit mental health research organization that produced PsychAlive.

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24 Comments

Todd

I am writing in hopes of help/guidance:
I am married to my love 20 years, 4 children
Career 15 years law enforcement, 25 years military and currently LCSW rural Nevada
diagnosed 4 time ADHD, have pre-occupied/disorganized attachment; my wife is more dismissive/disorganized
She has said recently, she knows I am an emotional abuser, she is done with me, because I will never change. I have effectively destroyed all trust she has. She is unwilling to read ANY resource I present. She believes she is well regulated and I am the one to change.
Being a therapist I have much information to show WHAT we could do different/better, yet she is unwilling to pursue.
She is committed to staying married and raising our children together, basically roommate. She wont even let me see her (6 weeks and counting) she changes in the other room, I haven’t “seen her”, that long. Affection is tolerated when I touch, but only allowed to a very small way.

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anon

Todd,
With all respect, this is a very complicated situation that no one on the internet could solve for you. It seems like you remember the exact words she used, but haven’t understood why she said them or how she feels.
You mention solutions you have thought of, and your credentials to back them up – but it takes two people to find a solution, so none of those solutions are going to solve the problem of how to hear each other and respect each other effectively.

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Bj gilds Menta

Been in therapy since July of 2018
TY for this great summation, have shared it to friends/family who know me.

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marina lopez

Having been having numerous fights with my partner, every time we fight it feels like i am going to lose him completely. I feel that way because he makes me feel that way, he tells me think before you do and don’t get comfortable. It sucks and it hurts. talking to him is so hard and it hurts

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dianne renney

I’m very upset and cry when I fall out with my husband when everything is fine then he say something I take it wrong way and it’s leads into a melt down then he walks of and that leaves me annoyed. He left the room again last nite and called me a few things which upset me I was restless all nite please help me find a way to peaceful ouite and no fall outs x

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Sophia Mathew

I feel that the exact answer to this question doesn’t exist how to stop fighting with your partner. In my opinion, it’s completely normal to argue with your spouse, what matters is how do you make up after an argument. I too have fights with my boyfriend, in the early phase of our relationship we never used to fight but now we fight over silly things. I feel that I am more argumentative but cannot do anything about it haha…, one of my friends suggested me to go to Alex Barnette, she is an expert counselor. I hope she would help me with this problem.

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Eureka

My boyfriend and i are too different,i like relaxing outside by the balcony,he likes relaxing inside the house,we fight over the fact that I can’t join him inside all the time,what can we do to make it work?

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AnitaTaco

Maybe you are both focusing on the wrong aspects! Inside, outside, the only important part is that it’s you and him together, no matter where you might be. If the weather is nice where you live or you have especially beautiful sunsets, have him join you sometime where he might gain a new appreciation for the balcon or something like that. On the other hand, if it gets hot mid afternoon (I live in Arizona, it’s like 113 in the summer) or cold in the morning, join him inside & enjoy being warm/or not in the hot sun. Even tell him, “You know what? Inside, outside, it doesn’t matter as long as I have you! We could in the 7th circle of Hell (also known as the Dept of Motor Vehicle =D lol) & I would be fine because I have you by my side!”
My husband and I are very opposite, but it would be so boring to be married to myself! I can barely even stand me sometimes! LOl…good thing he feels the opposite! It can work, we are living proof. We’ve been together 14 years and married almost 12. Only in the last 2 years have we had any internal turmoil, the 1st 12 years, we fought maybe 10% of the amount most normal couples do. (Normal? What’s that? Lol)

Anyone that says love is effortless or a feeling has never been in love! It takes hard work, effort & love is most definitely a verb, it’s something we have to actively choose to do with intention for the one we love, not for ourself. We get the benefits of loving them, but it’s gotta be selfless and for the benefit of the one you’re loving!

Good luck!

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Masha

What to do if I have tried all these steps but yet end up in the same, loveless marriage situation? I love him a lot, but I love me, too. I want to be happy and I want him to happy. I hate fighting. I don’t want to fight. He is a beautiful person, inside out. I guess we are not meant to be together.

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Todd

I agree. Collaboration and together in healing and growing. My things I’ve presented have just been suggestions, in hopes my wife would identify one and we could go with together

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leigha

My boyfriend and i fight all the time over time. With me with the children. My oldest father passed this year at 31 and my daughter at 7 i have so much going on my brain won’t shut off im so lost

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J

I fight with my fiance a lot lately and we tend to disagree on things.
It is very hard to understand him sometimes. I have hard time active listening and suffer from anxiety that gets worse when I stress or feel something is not right between us. He has made some mistakes in the past that were heartbreaking. I forgave him and then we later got engaged. Tonight we got into an argument and he broke up with me and left the house. it’s almost 4 am and I don’t know or understand his actions. Is there someone else, or other distractions again or what can be the reason. It is not normal if one wants to be alone. Or is this not ok for man or woman engaged? He ment it to be break up?Knowing what kind of memories it brings back for me. I don’t know how to take all of this. I love him dearly and was going to get professional help for my anxiety and personal issues but he said he can’t wait anymore and wants to be single. I am so confused… ((( i am devastated . plz someone help how to talk to him ? I love him with all my heart and believe he is the one. I come from a different culture on top of that and we have 8 yr difference. Which I love. I dunno what to do with myself. I know we can be so happy with him. At least he makes me feel like noone ever did in my entire life. I said yes and ment it wholeheartedly ((((((

Please i need support or some logical ideas

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Ang

I have been with my husband over 12 years and the last several we have been thru it . I don’t feel like he is himself anymore and I know I am not but I love him and I love what we shared . is it really possible for him to fall in love with me again or do I need to let go. . I’m scared and broken

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Shilpa choudhary

Very good content. It will definetly help people. I myself suffered alot in a relationship but now recovered from it.
here is my article of experience https://www.bloominggirl.in/2020/02/10-ways-to-avoid-silly-fights-in-a-relationship.html

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Riya

I fight with my boyfriend all the time and am the type who gets pissed and angry easily I sometimes insult him when am soo pissed.. He’s a nice guy and tolerates me all the time but this time I think he is fed up. Because when ever we fight I will get angry and ask for a brakup.. He would say no but it hasn’t got to that. Then everything goes back to normal.. But this time around we had a fight I insulted him and asked for a brakeup and he agreed but this time around I don’t want to loose him I really love him and not ready to let him go. Now we are back after 3days but he has really changed towards me he hardly talks to me in a nice way he’s always angry even tho he says he loves me..
Am confused I don’t know what to do about his new attitude towards me it hurts me and brakes me down please help me am so hurt and confused now please help me and how to get us happy

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Cathy

It’s abusive to threaten a breakup every time you fight- a form of abusive manipulation to keep you in power. It works but the problem is it damages the other person each time and makes the relationship totally unstable. Also insulting him doesn’t help. After being hurt so much of course he is going to start to hate you.

You need to apologize for ever telling him you would leave, and for insulting him. Tell him you were wrong to do it, love him and promise you will never do it again and will never leave him, no matter what. Tell him that every time you want to insult him instead you will compliment him. It will be hard for you to stop this abusive pattern but STOP.

See what happens.

Good luck!!

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Ana

I am in the same situation. I threatened him many times with break up and even blocked him because he kept hrut hurting me. I hate being lied and he did it a couple of time into my face. He knew how much I hate dishonesty and how much I appreciate communication and openness in the relationship. After many fights, we broke up and he insisted everything was my fault, even the fact that he lied. This showed me he lacks awareness of hia actions and avoids responsibility. I threatened him many times with the break up but he insisted on getting back, I now regretted I did not sticked to my idea. From. Begging I knew something did not feel right, I felt unease in the realtionship and always wondering about honesty which took my energy and happiness. I hope I will fully recover. Keep your heap up, your are better off single than with selfish, immature men.

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Rebecca

I completely agree with Cathy. It is abusive (though I’m sure unintentional) to threaten a breakup every time you fight. I know this, because I used to do it too. Whenever my husband and I would have a bad fight, I would say things like, “Maybe we’ll just be happier if we end it” or “I want out.” Truthfully, sometimes in the heat of the moment I thought I meant it, but never felt the same way when I woke up the next morning. Over time, I have realized that saying those things weakens the relationship a little more each time.

One of my favorite things about my husband is the stability he makes me feel. He lets me know he’s in it for the long haul, no matter what. By saying the things I did during the more heated fights, I was denying him that same security. I truly love him with all my heart and that’s not what I want to do the man I love, no matter how mad I was at him. Fortunately, I realized this early enough in our relationship that I was able to stop this. It was hard, because we are both very passionate and emotional people, but I stopped because I love him and want him to feel the same security in our marriage that he makes me feel. When you chose someone for life, you have a strong and very direct ability to influence their happiness in life. Why wouldn’t you want the one you love to feel happy, and secure, and loved?

I feel that in the 7 years we have been married, we have both matured a lot, which really helps. We still have our fights, because.. well we are very different people with different thoughts and points of view on many things, but the fallout is much better. We communicate better and I feel our relationship is much stronger. We know how much we love each other and that makes it all worth it.

All of what I just said applies if this is the man you love and want to marry. If he is untrustworthy, and not willing to put in any effort, or if you truly want to break up, then maybe take these lessons to better yourself for your next relationship.

I hope whatever you do brings you happiness.

Good luck!

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https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCQd8pE_K9OH3gCHTnlH6qHw/videos

It’s so tricky when there are arguments in a relationship and one person shuts down. It’s very painful the the other person whom is trying to communicate. It’s a difficult task after time as past to break the ice when both parties refuse to give in.

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thalia

I need help. ive been with my boyfriend for 3 1/2 years he proposed to me about 4 months ago. we lived together for 2 years. he moved away for work 6 months ago to a different state and he left with one day notice and it completely freaked me out and changed me in the relationship. i felt like he abandoned me when he left and i lost trust and i think respect. ive been now living with him in the new state for a month now which stresses me out because i am 2,000 miles away from everything i ever knew. ive never moved at all in my life and i’ve always been with my parents. im about to turn 21. I pick fights with him almost every day and i get mad so easily at little things i shouldn’t care about and i make the fights last for litterly hours on end and it is emotionally draining for the both of us but he doesn’t even try to communicate with me which angers me more because he just shuts down 5-10 mins into the conversation and i spend hours begging him to talk to me it seems but i get kind of mean because of how mad i am at the whole thing. I feel like i’m crazy now and idk why i changed like this. we now have a cycle of fighting and it seems like it will never break. how do i change myself? how do i become a good person? i want to be a nice person to him because he’s so nice most of the time just when i make him mad he gets mad too sometimes but i can’t blame him. how do i control myself and not be mean to him and start fights. i love him and care about him so much but he said to me tonight that he doesn’t think i do anymore and it hurts so much. i feel like i’ve been in so much pain for so long that i almost can’t feel anything anymore. i want to feel better for myself too.

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Matthew

Why does my future wife, always pack her bag and leave to her home. No matter what the fight is about. She always does that. I don’t know if she will be back this time or not. Now I want to end it. She says she is not coming back. So what do I do?

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Nicole Dodge

I have been with my boyfriend for 8 years and we have 1 child and another one on the way. We fight all the time but instead of trying to resolve anything he walks away from me and goes and runs to his mommy saying how mean I am or that I’m trying to hold him back or make him change. Here’s the real cool thing, we live with his 75 year old, widowed since 2005, narcissistic mother. He makes me out to be the bad guy when I’m exhausted after working for 9 hours, while I’m 6 months pregnant, and I get upset because after work I make dinner, clean up the kitchen, do the dishes, and then bathe and dress our daughter and he says I’m going next door to drink with the neighbor and doesn’t come home til 11 at night knowing i have to be up at 5am. He refuses to apologize for his behavior and he doesn’t even show he cares instead he says that I’m a hindrance to him and that I am trying to control and manipulate him. He then will normally go on about what a crappy individual I am and how I should just get out of his house. He continues this for probably about 30 minutes and I finally put in my ear buds while I’m crying feeling as though I’ve done something wrong and that I deserve this. He will then pass out and when he gets up in the morning , it’s like it never happened to him because he was so drunk he doesn’t remember it. When he realizes that I’m upset with him, he starts saying I caused the fight or he says well if you wouldn’t do or say this and just let me do what I want we would not fight. Basically that it’s all my fault for me being upset and for the way he talks to me and how he treats me. If I try and defend myself or if I raise my voice a little bit, mommy comes running in to back him up and help him make me feel unwanted, worthless, and like I’m below them and dont deserve to have a voice. I dont know what else I can do. I’ve asked for counseling for us but he says i wont allow us to be happy or stable so it’s not gonna help. I love him but after 8 years i think it might be time for me to let go. Can someone please offer something, anything that i can do to get through to him or should Isay I’ve had enough and leave to get myself healthy mentally for me and my children?

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