Whether you’re arguing about something as trivial as dirty dishes or as serious as infidelity, fighting with someone you love hurts. Right now, you may feel angry, isolated, and hopeless, but according to research, the effects of conflict can be long-lasting and detrimental to your mental and physical health.
“There is a growing body of research that sheds light on marital conflict and the damage it can do to an individual’s health in a relationship,” said Christina Eller, LMHC, a psychotherapist specializing in relationships, marriage, and intimacy. “Marital conflicts that lead couples to a negative state of mind are likely to suffer increased stress, anxiety, and depression.” But the effects are not only mentally challenging; it can also harm your physical health.
In 2018, researchers at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center found that couples who were particularly bad fights have higher levels of bacteria in their blood (which can enter the intestines and cause poor intestinal health). More studies show that hot moments can harm your cardiovascular health and making wounds heal more slowly.
But, according to Eller, every stressful moment doesn’t have to leave you feeling empty and distant from your partner. There are better ways to navigate conflict and protect your well-being in the process. Below, Eller and Elisabeth Gulotta, LMHC of NYC Therapeutic Wellness, will offer their best tips for conflict resolution before, during, and after an argument.
Before the conflict
Understand how and why you fight
For a long time, a common message was that couples fight about topics like money or sex. But according to Eller, most arguments have deeper roots that your partner deserves to explore HISTORY you start exchanging words. “With married couples, there is a misplaced argument between the spouses about widespread themes such as finances, domestic inequality, co-parenting, or even infidelity. Research shows this couples rarely argue about an obvious topic,” he explained. “Sometimes they do, but it is more likely that couples unintentionally build emotional damages during conflicts due to a lack of understanding of their partner, ergo miscommunication.”
Gulotta says our emotional responses to disagreements can stem from childhood wounds, unmet needs, or feelings of insecurity. “We all have relationships with our own wounds and things that didn’t go well, and these can be pain points and trigger points,” she said. “There’s a weakness in going deeper, so a couple can stay arguing about surface-level things if they don’t take the time or have the knowledge to find the root.”
Going to therapy together or asking your partner about their core needs can help you get ahead of potential arguments and better deal with them when they come up. Chances are, you’re not just a fight with the dishes.
Beware of the “four horsemen” of conflict settings
“According to research by John Gottman, there are four communication habits used by couples in states of conflict that inevitably damage the relationship and increase the likelihood of divorce. Those four behaviors are criticizing, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt,” Eller said.
In this context, criticism is characterized by attacking someone for who they are. For example, “You don’t wash the dishes because you’re lazy.” Defensiveness means putting up an immediate shield when someone brings up something that bothers them. For example, “I try my best. I’m so busy right now!” The third response, contempt, looks like making fun of someone for who they are in a really mean way while stonewalling (which is a normal response to contempt) looks like ignoring your partner and telling them “just don’t want to talk about it.”
These are normal human responses, but they’re worth memorizing so you can watch out for them when beef comes between yourself and a loved one.
Talk about how you fight with your partner—and agree on a safe word
When you have finished all the self-reflection, start a conversation with your partner. Tell them how you fight, ask them about their fighting style, and make a plan for dealing with future tiffs. (More on how to do that below.)
As part of this conversation, Eller recommends creating a “safe” word that you can say in the middle of a fight to signal that you need a moment to figure out your feelings. “The safe word represents that you need to take a timeout,” he said. “This means that you or your partner need to take a break from the interaction. It’s not withdrawal! It’s so that if either of you becomes too active in the argument—to avoid saying things you’ll regret—you take time out. “
He says that this word or phrase can be funny or a reminder of how much you love each other. For example, if you had a good trip to Paris, your safe word would be “Paris.”
During the dispute
Recognize how anger feels in your body
Fighting changes your body on a physiological level: Your heart rate increases, and so does your breathing and blood pressure. Recognizing these warning signs in your body will help you stop before you act on emotion and impulse and say something you don’t mean (or you won’t do the four horsemen). “This is the key to creating some distance between yourself and the storm of thoughts and feelings,” says Eller. “Consider that you are activated. Begin to investigate what happens when you are emotionally overwhelmed.”
Use your “safe word” to stop the argument and reflect
When your brain starts thinking a mile a minute and your emotions run high, now is the time to say your safe word. Say it, and find a place away from your partner.
Take time for self-soothing and meditation
According to Eller, you should have three to five self-soothing tricks up your sleeve in case of conflict. Each should last about thirty to sixty minutes, and you should share it with your partner beforehand so they know that, say, the bathroom is off limits because you’re going to take a bubble bath. You should also keep in mind their self-soothing practices so you can respect them.
Eller also has a little exercise to try during the timeout. “Picture a time when you experienced your partner as loving, generous and well-intentioned. Add as many details as you can to capture exactly how you experience your partner when you feel loved and cared for,” she said. . “This helps your brain come out of reactive myopia and reintegrate a more balanced view of your partner.”
Make a plan to meet again later
Before you separate, establish a place and time when the two of you can get back together and talk about it. “After you’ve had 30 to 60 minutes of self-soothing time, meet at your designated space and continue the discussion,” says Eller.
This is what Gulotta calls the “healing” stage of an argument. With time, space, and reflection behind you, you should have a more understanding, compassionate conversation with your partner about the root of the argument. However, this takes practice. “These are all skills that can be developed over time and make us more successful in handing over conflict without escalation, massive destruction, and needing to be repaired after the fact,” Gulotta said.
After the dispute
Schedule weekly relationship check-ins
One way to avoid future arguments is to schedule a weekly meeting with your significant other. “It’s a set time when it’s a safe and open place to share,” Gulotta said. “Both people agree to go into that space and be open and willing to listen in the same way that people prioritize gym classes or time with friends. It’s important to prioritize this connection and opportunity to talk to obvious and weaker than your partner.
Like everything else, getting good at conflict resolution is all about practice. “Conflict is an opportunity for two people to really grow and understand themselves better as an individual and collectively,” Eller said. “It is better to see conflict as a cause rather than something to be avoided.”