So, you and your partner just had a fight. Maybe it was around a small issue, maybe it was over something big, and maybe it was a perpetuating argument that has been repeating for months or years now. It blew up and a mixture of relationship poisons like harsh words, broken trust, shouting, contempt, criticism, silent treatment, resentment, hurt feelings, etc. left a bitter taste. But you want this partnership to continue. You want to repair your relationship, to restore connection between you and your partner, to get things back where they were or, more possibly, make them better. But at the same time, you don’t want to be hurt (again).
So, what do you do? How to heal a relationship after an argument?
According to Dr. John Gottman, most, if not all, couples argue, which is not a problem in itself. What determines the course of a relationship is how romantic partners see and handle those conflicts, how they relate to each other, and what they do after a fight to soothe and repair their relationship.
In other words, all relationships go through cycles of rupture and repair.
Ruptures in a relationship are inevitable…
When things are going well in a relationship, we feel respected, connected, and emotionally safe. We feel liked and appreciated, we are responsive to our partner’s emotions and needs, and feel like it is reciprocated. In short, we feel in tune with one another. Over time, this sense of mutual attunement contributes to building strong bonds and intimacy between people.
However, this harmonious state can be thrown off balance from time to time due to different factors, such as stress, insecurities, wrong assumptions, miscommunication, etc. We are not mind readers, no matter how finely tuned we are to each other’s moods and sensitivities. Mistakes and “misattunements” happen, and they can lead to ruptures in a relationship.
A rupture is a disruption of the emotional connection we have with a loved one. It can be small, like saying something insensitive unintentionally, or big and potentially non-negotiable, like a breach of trust. Typically, ruptures are colored with unpleasant feelings like hurt, anger, loneliness, sadness, disappointment, etc. No matter how much effort we put into a relationship, some ruptures will occur. What happens after the rupture is important. If left unaddressed and untreated, resentment can build and emotional intimacy weaken. However, if both partners engage in repairing, their relationship can not only heal but grow and thrive.
…Repairs are what matters
Repair attempts are any actions or statements that are aiming to prevent a conflict escalating out of control, or, in some way, aiming to extend the olive branch after an argument. According to Dr. Gottman, repair attempts are a “secret weapon” of happy couples, whether they are aware they are using them or not. They are an act of loving behaviour not only toward your partner but to the relationship itself. They communicate: “I care about you and about this relationship, so I am willing to be vulnerable and try to connect with you. I am not trying to win this fight, I am not against you. Instead, I want our relationship to win this fight. Please join me”.
All relationships are different, so repair attempts will vary from couple to couple. Some examples:
- Offering an apology (“I am sorry about what I said earlier, I didn’t mean it”)
- Statements that communicate you are still a team (“I love you”, “I know it’s not your fault”)
- Sharing appreciation (“Thank you for sharing that with me”, “I admire that you…”)
- Empathizing (“I understand”, “If I was in your shoes, I can imagine seeing things the same way”)
- Cracking an inside joke
- A small invitation to talk, like softly tapping a spot beside you, or offering them a drink or a snack
- A gentle physical touch, like holding their hand or offering a hug
It takes two to tango, and two to repair a relationship
Repair attempts take courage and insight, and need both partners in order to work. That’s right, both partners need to engage in repair for it to be successful, no matter who may seem to be more “wrong” or more “responsible for the damage”.
That said, Dr. Gottman and his colleagues tried to find the most effective kinds of repairs through a series of research. The problem was, they couldn’t find any consistency – sometimes the most beautifully crafted and honestly spoken apologies didn’t work, while other times, something that seems trivial, like a silly grimace, was very successful. They couldn’t quite figure it out until they started looking at the partner on the receiving end of a repair attempt. They found out that it’s not exactly the nature of the repair that makes it successful; it’s the willingness of the other partner to notice and receive those attempts.
Now, this willingness doesn’t stem merely from other partner’s mood or good will, but from a number of different factors, one of the most important ones being the “balance in their “emotional bank account” which, most simply put, refers to how much they have felt seen, heard, understood, and appreciated in the relationship, especially lately. But it’s not so simple of course – this balance depends, again, on both sides. It takes making deposits to the emotional bank (like responding to partner’s needs, showing interest in what’s going on with them, empathizing and being there for them, showing appreciation for who they are or what they do, doing small acts of kindness, etc.) and also recognizing these efforts. But that’s a topic for a whole another blog. Let’s get back to the practical stuff.
Usually, the responsibility for an argument lays on both partners, although it doesn’t always seem like that. However, sometimes one partner shares a larger portion of responsibility, and only after they may realize how much they have hurt their partner. If that’s the case, check out our article “How to apologize the right way after you hurt your partner“.
6 steps to repair a relationship after a fight
Now that you know that ruptures happen even in the happiest relationships, and that mastering the art of making and receiving repair attempts is crucial for healing a relationship, let’s see what you can do to de-escalate the tension after a fight with your partner and get your relationship back on track.
1. Take a time-out and explore how you feel
Repairing a relationship after a fight takes many gentle moves. However, it can be really difficult to be gentle in the heat of the moment or right after, especially when you feel hurt or angry. If you feel flooded with intense uncomfortable emotions, trying to resolve a conflict right there can be counterproductive – extend or escalate it, or even trigger a new one. Instead, in the aftermath of a heated argument, it may be best to give each other some time and space to take a breather and decompress. You can both use this time to process what happened, feel your feelings, and explore what this argument meant for you. This will be very important later when you sit together to resolve the issue.
A useful thing you can do to collect your thoughts and get in touch with yourself during this time is to follow a 3-step process:
- Do a brain dump. Like emptying the contents of a purse onto the table, spill the contents of your mind onto paper. All of it. Write down everything that you think and feel, without any particular order and without a filter. No matter if it doesn’t make sense, no matter if it sounds silly, just get it all out.
This technique is particularly useful and relieving when you feel overwhelmed by uncomfortable thoughts and emotions. The act of taking the thoughts out of your mind and seeing them on paper helps diffuse the issue and calm your mind a little, because there are not so many different thoughts bouncing around.
- Sit with your feelings. After you wrote down everything you think about (and you may feel drained but relieved at this point; it’s normal), make some room for your feelings. How do you feel? Where do you feel it in your body? Can you name those feelings? Remember, you can experience different feelings and they can exist at the same time. You can feel love and anger toward your partner, you may appreciate them and feel disappointed about what they did. It’s okay, it’s your space; let the feelings flow.
- Think about what your partner can do to help you feel better. Ask yourself – what do I need? What it would take for me to feel different? What is my partner’s role for this to happen, and what is my role? Clearing this out can set you up for a more productive recovery conversation.
2. Refocus from “Me vs. You” to “We vs. The Problem”
When people feel hurt, angry, betrayed, disregarded, or disrespected, they tend to either attack or put up a wall and dismiss whatever the other person is trying to communicate (or both). These are self-protective actions, and they’re understandable. However, in romantic relationships, they rarely lead to a productive solution. Self-protection might be the first impulse in the moment, but remember that your partner probably feels the same way, and it won’t take you where you want to be – connected and safe with each other again. So, what will take you there then?
One person needs to break this cycle and show courage to expose themselves to a certain extent, to be vulnerable, and re-focus from protecting themselves to protecting the relationship.
If you want to fix your relationship, you need to be on the same team. You are in a relationship not by force, but because you choose to be with each other. Your partner is not the enemy. You are not the enemy. You two, together, as a team, have a problem, that you may be able to fix together. But it takes someone to be vulnerable enough to take the first step.
Stepping back from a self-protection attitude and turning toward a relationship-protection frame of mind is not easy. In fact, it can be incredibly difficult, maybe some of the hardest work you can do as a couple. But it is the strongest tool you have for building your emotional bond and helping your relationship thrive.
3. Actively listen to your partner and validate their feelings
Feeling heard and understood is the need that lays in almost all conflicts. To fix the relationship after a fight, you can start a conversation by asking your partner to share their feelings and their point of view. For a moment, set aside your perspective, set aside judgment and prejudice, set aside the need to disagree and defend yourself, and just listen. Express interest in their needs, feelings, hopes, what hurt them, what they desire, what they lack. Try to put yourself in their shoes and see things from their perspective. Ideally, you want to come to the point where you understand how the way they see things and how they feel make sense. Even if this is difficult, try to find something you can agree with or that you understand, and acknowledge that.
You can validate their feelings by expressing understanding: “I understand now. I would probably feel the same way if I were in your spot” or by repeating or summarizing what they said: “It sounds like you felt hurt by what I said.”
Validating your partner’s feelings at this point doesn’t mean you agree with what they said during the argument or with their point of view. It doesn’t mean they are “right” or that they “won”. It just means you are willing to show them that you are there for them, that you are ready to listen and understand because you care about what’s important for them. When you start listening with a goal to understand, not to respond, it fulfills the need to feel heard and understood, and does wonders for rebuilding trust, safety, and connection.
Hard? Yes. Effective? Yes, yes, and yes.
4. Share your side without pointing fingers
It’s important to share how you felt during the argument and how you experienced it. While doing this, it’s crucial to make sure you avoid blame and criticism. You can be in a conflict without telling the other person: “You’re bad!”
Focus on using “I statements” and avoid pointing fingers with sentences that start with something like “You always…” and “You never…”. For example, statements like: “You never listen to me” and “You don’t care about me” are a big no. And no, a crafty construction like: “You made me feel unheard” is not an “I statement”.
“I statements” are in a form of: “I feel – When – (bonus: Because)”.
For example: “I feel frustrated when I am constantly interrupted in a conversation” or: “I feel overwhelmed and upset when you yell at me during a conflict.” You can also add why this is so important to you, for example: “I shut down and it’s difficult for me to continue the conversation. Also, I feel scared when it happens and I really don’t want to feel this way with you.”
What “I statements” ultimately do is create a more positive and less hostile atmosphere for communication because they frame a situation as something to be solved together, instead of sounding like a complaint about the other person or an attack on their character. This way, you decrease the possibility of your partner becoming defensive and increase the likelihood of them truly listening to you and adopting that “same team” mentality.
5. If you haven’t already, discover what the fight was really about
Fights about little things are often not about those little things at all. A fight over doing dishes may be, at its core, about unmet needs, failed expectations, respect, etc.
For example, imagine a scenario where Partner I didn’t do the dishes (again!) and Partner II complains about it, which blows up into an argument. What may be happening for Partner I is not that they just don’t like doing the dishes, but that they felt angry and unloved. They may be overwhelmed at work and worried about their mother who is sick, and they had a super stressful day. So, they perceive complains from Partner II as a sign that they don’t care about their feelings. On the other hand, for Partner II, not doing the dishes after many complaints and conversations was a sign of disrespect; they felt unappreciated and taken for granted because they put in the efforts to change little habits that are bothering Partner I and make little sacrifices to make their life together more comfortable, but don’t feel the efforts are recognized or reciprocated.
So, the fight was, obviously, not about the dishes. It was about the deeper needs of feeling loved, respected, and appreciated. When we don’t communicate openly, we can easily overlook what is really going on, which can lead to miscommunication, resentment, and cycles of unproductive arguments without a real solution. So, in our example, when Partner I and Partner II discover what the fight was really about and which needs, wants, or expectations were not met, they can discuss together what they can do in the future to change that and help the other person feel better.
6. Work together toward finding a practical solution
Now that the situation calmed down and you shared your perspectives and feelings, try to come up with a solution that will prevent a fight like this from happening in the future. Discuss what both of you can do to help each other feel better about the issue. Ideally, you want to be able to put this topic to rest and move on, with both of you intentionally taking steps to stick to the plan you agree on.
In our previous example, Partner I can, for instance, make sure they share their feelings more often and communicate with their partner when they feel stressed. At the same time, they can show appreciation by noticing little efforts Partner II is investing in their home by expressing it with words and with initiating completeying some housework tasks, when they can. On the other hand, Partner II can make sure to check in with Partner I more often and make room for some slipups without turning to criticism. They can also set boundaries, make sure they don’t give over their limits, and don’t sacrifice their time and energy without it being necessary because it can lead to resentment. Both partners can also come up with a more detailed plan about what they would do and how they can discuss better if this problem comes up again.
If the same issue happens over and over again without a resolution you can both agree on, it may be wise to see a couple’s therapist. The right professional can help you tremendously in understanding your and your partner’s thoughts and feelings, emotional triggers and needs, identify the reason you’re stuck, and help you learn skills to better communicate and solve problems.
Disclaimer: All these tips refer to after verbal arguments. If your relationship is physically or emotionally abusive, try to find a support system and consider a safe escape plan. An experienced professional can help you get through it and guide you in creating a plan of the next steps.
An argument in an otherwise healthy relationship can actually bring you closer, if it’s handled the right way. If conflict resolution is done right, it can bring positive things, such as learning how to meet each other’s needs better, how to communicate more effectively, and how to adapt to one another so you can both thrive. Overall, it’s a process, but it can be a powerful one. Try it, and good luck!
If this article was helpful to you in any way, please be free to share it with your friends and family. Also, share some of your useful tips for fixing a relationship after an argument in the comments.
Interested in learning more about coaching or therapy? Contact us today.
Procrastination is something we all experience. You certainly know the feeling – staring at a blank page, having an assignment waiting for you, delaying starting a large project, and doing everything except what you are “supposed” to do. You carry around this heavy, dark cloud of procrastination, feeling miserable for hours or days, but you are still unable to make the first step toward getting it done. And even though you may be irritated, agitated, you can’t sleep… you can’t work either. Until finally, something happens, and you get it done. Often in a guilt-infused panic mode, at the last moment, but you get it done.
The quality of your work may suffer. The quality of your life definitely does.
But why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we procrastinate, even when we know we will feel bad about it? The answer to this question is not simple and goes much deeper than just “laziness” or “irresponsibility”.
Why do we procrastinate?
Contrary to what most people believe, procrastination is not about being lazy or lacking willpower. Since it’s such a widespread phenomenon, numerous researchers tried to get to the bottom of it and understand the roots and reasons behind it.
“Procrastination isn’t a unique character flaw or a mysterious curse on your ability to manage time, but a way of coping with challenging emotions induced by certain tasks – boredom, anxiety, insecurity, frustration, resentment, self-doubt and beyond.”
– dr. Piers Steel, a professor of the University of Calgary
There are many potential reasons for procrastination, but the majority of results of scientific studies show that they come down to three groups of explanations, or can be a combination of them. They show that, usually, procrastination may be:
- a result of our brain’s natural tendency to be more drawn to instant gratification than long-term benefits
- a habit we use to cope with stress and provide emotional relief
- a way to protect our sense of self-worth
Procrastination is not a time-management problem; it’s an emotion regulation problem. So let’s get deeper into it.
I Procrastination is something our brain naturally does
The brain is pretty amazing. It is probably the most complex thing humankind currently knows. And yet, it can sometimes seem, well, a little lazy. The problem is, our brains are programmed to be more drawn toward instant gratification than toward future benefits; they’ll rather take immediate satisfaction than focus on the big picture and delay pleasure for the sake of long-term goals. In general, we struggle with tasks that require effort now in return to future possible benefits. That is why it can be so difficult to stick to long-term goals such as weight-loss programs or saving for retirement.
An interesting study from UCLA showed that, when we imagine our future self, our brain’s activity is similar to as if we’re imagining someone else completely. In other words, when you imagine yourself a day, a week, a month from now, it’s like you’re imagining, say, a mailman or a worker you said “Hi” to once at a random store. A complete stranger. So, in a nutshell, an emotional part of your brain doesn’t really care about your future self as much as it does for your present self. Not even close.
Looking from this perspective, procrastination makes sense. It explains why it’s so easy to procrastinate, and why it takes effort and active attention to break the pattern and actually start working on something you know is important for your future self, but your present self doesn’t like doing.
II We procrastinate as a way to deal with stress
Here is a funny paradox – although we know procrastination, long-term, increases our stress levels and brings a whole bunch of uncomfortable emotions, initially, we may use procrastination as a stress-relief habit.
When we feel stressed, drained, overwhelmed, or we have a low level of frustration tolerance (low ability to tolerate unpleasant feelings or stressful situations), our brains may use procrastination as a way to gain some strength and energy in the present moment. If you have something stressful going on in your life, if your brain is filled with overthinking, worrying, overplanning, anxiety, high expectations, etc., and you have something boring or challenging to deal with, your brain may be like: “Are you kidding me?! I can’t deal with this too! Give me some break!”. So, we turn to procrastination as a way to try to lower the level of stress by doing something we find less overwhelming. Watching cat videos is much less demanding than making 15 phone calls, isn’t it?
Since your brain is, pretty shortsighted, it automatically turns to short-term stress relief, even though, long term, stress will increase due to procrastination. If this worked a couple of times, your brain may start adopting procrastination as a habit it can turn to when you need to deal with something you have no motivation for and your stress levels are high.
But what about situations when we procrastinate on things we love and value, those that are really important to us?
III We procrastinate as a way to maintain a good self-image
Here is an even funnier paradox than the previous one – when we really, really want to succeed, but are also very, very scared of failure, we may self-sabotage as a way to self-protect. In other words, we may use procrastination as both, a way to sabotage ourselves and, that way, preserve our good self-image. Let’s explain.
The self-worth theory of motivation asserts that one of our primary needs, as human beings, is the need to be accepted, by ourselves and others, and the primary way we see this happening is through achievement. In other words, we feel the need to be seen as competent and capable, because this gives us a sense of self-worth, and we are ready to sacrifice our other needs to preserve that image.
Basically, many of us have a simple model in our head that our performance determines our inner capabilities and our skills, which determine our success, and this success determines our self-worth, how we think about ourselves. Naturally, when this is the case and we are facing an important task, our anxiety and fear of failure skyrocket. Performing well on a task becomes crucial because, if we fail, it is not just the work we did that is at stake, it’s our self-image as well. But we still want to do it, it’s something we value and find important. So we have two strong forces battling inside us – a driving desire to achieve and a paralyzing fear of failure.
When the desire to succeed and the fear of failure clash…
We can strive for success, really want to do something, but at the same time be afraid of failure and what it means for us. When we are overly striving both away and toward something, we can feel stuck. This is exactly how people often describe procrastination – as being stuck, against a wall, feeling like having an obstacle they can’t get over.
When this is the case, we may use procrastination as a “middle ground” between these two motivations, a smart strategy to protect the picture of ourselves as capable individuals. If we procrastinate on a task that we value and care about, there are two scenarios:
- If we fail, we have built a good excuse for ourselves – “Well, I didn’t have enough time to do it better. It’s probably not an accurate representation of my abilities”.
- If, on the other hand, we succeed, we can say to ourselves how capable we are – “Wow, I succeeded despite such a short time I had”.
It’s a win-win situation. Except it is not, because we sacrifice our peace of mind and, often, the quality of our work.
So, how to fight this?
How to stop procrastinating?
The first step toward overcoming procrastination is to be aware of it. Procrastination comes in many disguises, from guilty Netflix nights to being “busy” and doing seemingly important tasks to avoid what is really important. It’s not always easy to recognize procrastination for what it is, until it’s too late. To overcome it, you first need to stop and notice it. The second and crucial step is unravelling what lies behind it. What is your, individual reason for putting things off? From there, you can take some steps toward managing those reasons and get rid of procrastination. Here are some suggestions and tips.
I Fight procrastination by training your instant-gratification brain
Sometimes, when it comes to doing things that we are not motivated or we don’t like doing, we need a little extra push to get things going. Two things can be helpful to overcome our brains’ automatic tendency to grasp for instant satisfaction:
Re-balance the cost-benefit analysis
Instead of letting the emotional part of your brain run the show, turn up your logical, rational side. Consciously make the benefits of taking action feel bigger and the disadvantages of the “pain of doing it” feel smaller. So, you want to focus on the reward of taking action or finishing a task and make it outweigh the pain of tackling it. For example, you can visualize how great it feels to tick it off of your to-do list, or tie finishing each step of a task to a treat, to something you’re looking forward to. Try experimenting and see what works for you to re-balance things and get started.
Bridge the gap between your present self and your future self
Be aware that your brain is short-sighted and that it sees your future self almost as a stranger. Thus, keep reminding yourself – it’s still going to be you. You, with your kind of thinking, your memories, your experiences, your problems, and if you don’t take action now, you’ll probably have another set of problems to deal with. Imagine if you had to face those problems right now – how would you feel? Really try to bring that feeling into the present moment. Uncomfortable? That’s exactly how you’re going to feel if you let the consequences of your inaction for your future self to deal with.
In a similar manner, when you set goals, while it’s important to imagine long-term benefits, make sure your present self knows what’s in it for them too. Find a way to make the process more enjoyable short term. Play with little rewards and see what feels good each step of the way.
II Beat procrastination when you are stressed and overwhelmed
Like any habit, procrastination can be broken, or changed. In short, every habit has three parts: trigger, response, and reward. In the case of procrastination, the trigger is stress. Your response is avoiding the task. The reward is a little bit of stress relief. What you can change in this cycle is your response. You are always going to have stresses in your life – you can’t change that, but you can acknowledge it and change the way you respond to it.
So, instead of seeking stress relief by avoiding a task (and then beating yourself up about it and becoming more stressed), you can:
1. Take the time to notice what’s going on underneath
Stop and acknowledge what is really stressing you out and taking your energy.
2. Avoid self-criticism
Forgive yourself for wanting to avoid the stress by procrastinating. There is no need to criticize yourself; that will increase the stress.
3. Identify the first step and use the “5-minute trick”
When we have to deal with something complex, it can be difficult to start because it can seem overwhelming. Finding the smallest first step that you can start with is usually helpful. A goal or a task like: “Learn Italian” is huge, and facing it in that form can feel paralyzing. On the other hand, “Search for an Italian language teacher and contact them” or “Go to the bookstore and buy an A1 Italian language workbook” seem much more manageable. To make it even easier, commit to working on the first (or any) step for only 5 minutes. Usually, you will find yourself continuing beyond that, but it’s a good place to start, because that is the most difficult step.
4. Find another way to get stress relief
Your brain needs some energy, and is trying to get it in an inefficient way – through procrastination. Make sure to compensate, but from a different source, something that is better and healthier for you. Promise yourself that after the work you do, you will do something to recharge yourself. This is not self-indulgence, but a reasonable way to look at your needs and provide yourself with enough energy to continue functioning efficiently.
To sum up, these steps may go something like this: “I procrastinate – I may be stressed about this and this and that – It’s okay, I need some relief, and my brain is trying to do this by turning to procrastination. Let’s change that. I will work on this for a limited amount of time, and instead of inefficiently trying to get some energy through procrastination, I will provide it to myself by doing this and this and that afterward”.
III Overcome procrastination when it comes from fear of failure
People who are very fearful of failure (and many high-achievers and perfectionists fall into this category) often have a kind of simplistic model in their mind: performance = ability = worth. Sometimes we procrastinate on things that are important to us, that we love and value, because we are scared to make a mistake and what that would mean for us and our self-image.
If you recognize yourself in this, here are a few things you can do:
1. Notice it for what it is and don’t let it slide
Ask yourself what is going on, what you’re afraid of. What kind of uncomfortable feelings does this task inflict on you? Then think about how realistic this kind of thinking actually is. Are you focusing on the negative or catastrophizing? Is some kind of black and white thinking present? Do you impose some “should” or “musts” on yourself? Talking to a therapist about it can also help.
2. Change your self-talk and tame your expectations
Catch criticism or perfectionism and realize it’s not helpful. Instead, you can look at things as an opportunity to experiment. Have a kind and friendly attitude toward yourself and approach a task with curiosity: “Let’s see how this will go” instead of “Everyone will think I’m a failure”. Self-compassion is incredibly helpful in this, you may want to incorporate it into the way you think and treat yourself.
3. Focus on your values instead of on your fears
Think about your values, what is important to you, and connect them with a task you do. How can you make this task less scary? Instead of focusing on what you are fearful of and why you don’t want to do the task, come up with a list of why you want to do the task, what is drawing you toward it, what is motivating you.
4. Challenge the performance–ability–worth relationship
You are more than your accomplishments. You don’t appreciate your friends because of their performance, academic or career success, but because of their other qualities, such as kindness, humor, loyalty, their ability to listen, their quirks and uniqueness. Our abilities and performance are connected, that’s true, but not always; there are many factors that determine our performance. We don’t always perform perfectly, even though our abilities may exceed what we show at the moment. It goes vice versa as well – admit it, there were situations in your life when you got lucky and got an A on a test when you really didn’t deserve it.
Be mindful of your natural brain’s tendency to procrastinate and re-balance things.
Be gentle with yourself and find a way to de-stress in a healthy way.
Acknowledge the fear, and take it along for a ride. You got this.
Do you have some useful tips on how to deal with procrastination? Share them with us in the comment section below! If you like this blog post and find it useful, please be free to share it with others.
Interested in learning more about coaching or therapy? Contact us today.