Over the past several years, the term “toxic” has become a commonplace way to describe a situation, a personality, or a relationship that results in conflict and hurt. The widely accepted response to toxicity in relationships is to drop them hard and fast. However, this isn’t always an option. While some connections can be ended with a conversation or even a text, other relationships require heavy mental and emotional labor to quit completely. Sometimes extricating yourself from a relationship involves more work than resolving the conflict.
- You have an abrasive work colleague whom you avoid as much as possible. One day, though, their personality just gets to you in a way you can’t shake off. Somehow, a sarcastic remark balloons into a shouting match across the break room. Your supervisor is on your side, but says you need to either work things out with your colleague, or else start looking for a new job.
- Your brother-in-law’s political views are diametrically opposed to yours. You try to stay away from the subject when your families are together, but with every turn of the news cycle, your hatred of everything he stands for only grows. One evening, a chance remark sets the two of you off like a spark on dry kindling. All of a sudden, the friendly family get-together turns into a melee of yelling adults, crying children, and a lot of old resentments being dragged into the light.
- Your mother keeps posting embarrassing, sometimes inappropriate things on Facebook and tagging you in them. You’ve talked to her about it, but she continues to cross the boundary you’ve set. Finally, you act on what you’ve been warning her you’d do, and de-friend her. Now she’s hurt to the point where she won’t talk to you. Meanwhile, your dad texts you almost every day, begging you to please just “send your mom a Facebook again — it would mean so much to her.”
- Your fiancée catches you having a cigarette (which you promised you’d quit) and freaks out. In less time than it takes to say “projecting much?”, she’s comparing you to all the men she’s ever known who have disappointed her. This is far from the first time her trust issues have come up, and you’re pretty sick of defending yourself for every little misstep. Instead of responding with compassion and gentleness, like you usually do, you take her to task for a few flaws of her own. Before you know it, it’s 2 a.m. and you’re tossing and turning on the couch, listening to her muffled sobs coming from the bedroom.
Sure, you could refuse to ever talk to these people again. But that’s a choice that results in serious life disruption. Furthermore, if every conflict is a reason to kick the relationship to the curb, you’re in real danger of ending up completely alone. Being alone might sound good when you’re in the conflict, but it isn’t actually sustainable. Healthy relationships are associated with better physical and mental performance, fewer doctor visits, less pain and illness, and even a longer lifespan.
Conflict isn’t a sign that your relationship is unhealthy — rather, it’s a natural part of any relationship. Unfortunately, we often express our most destructive traits and impulses with the people we love and trust the most. After all, who better to be the worst version of yourself with, than the person who makes you feel safe and unconditionally loved? It’s messed up, but that’s human nature for you.
There’s no use in trying to avoid fights at all costs. They’re going to happen. The key is to use them as a force for positive change. Getting over a fight requires looking past your emotions and soberly considering what you really want. Do you really want to get out of the relationship altogether? Do you want to teach the other person a lesson? Or do you just want to feel happy, close, and confident when relating to them?
If you answered “yes” to the final question, the following tips will help you efficiently and effectively resolve a fight with just about anyone in your life. From managing your own emotions to getting to the heart of the issue to moving forward, these psychiatrist-recommended techniques for getting over a fight will let you turn the lemons of human conflict into the lemonade of a high-functioning, happy relationship.
It’s common for one person to be more distant afterward, while the other person is more clingy. The distant person is actually onto something. Trying to talk things out while emotions are high is a near guarantee for a follow-up fight. Taking a few hours or even a few days to recover from the trauma of the fight, settle your emotions and reflect on what happened is key to moving forward.
However, if you’re the one who likes to take a step away, one of the most important things you can do to help heal the fight is communicate where you’re at, emotionally speaking. Without launching into a full “talk it out” session, check in with your partner in conflict to let them know that you haven’t abandoned them and that you’re invested in finding a solution to the issue.
It can be tempting to show your partner they screwed up through passive-aggressive behavior (picking up coffee for everyone except them, “forgetting” about an event that you promised to attend, acting distant and aloof toward them). Actions like this might offer some grim satisfaction at the time, but in the long term, the only thing they accomplish is to compound the problem. Don’t sabotage your relationship with passive-aggressive punishment tactics. Respect is foundational to a healthy relationship.
The worse the conflict you’re engaged in, the deeper the feedback loop your brain falls into. That makes it really hard to get your head to a neutral zone where you can objectively reflect on what happened and learn from it, much less feel empathy for your partner’s side of things. The key to breaking out of that negative feedback loop is a “state change”— literally, changing your state of mind by changing what you’re doing. If you’re sitting on your back porch stewing over how badly you were treated, your best bet is to get up and go. Take the dog for a long walk, jog through a nature trail, bike to your favorite bookshop or record store, or clean the house with your favorite music blasting. Physical activity will not only provide a kinetic distraction, but it will also trigger endorphins that help you think more positively.
If you’re not yet ready to resolve the situation, that doesn’t mean everything good about your relationship has to be put on hold. Small acts of kindness, generosity, and trust are the best way to begin rebuilding what your conflict broke down. Psychologists sometimes refer to this as “unilateral disarmament”– according to Dr. Lisa Firestone, it means “momentarily dropping your side of the debate and approaching your partner from a more loving stance.”
Send a caring text, bring home their favorite treat, take care of a task you know they hate doing, or offer a small physical gesture like a pat on the back or a kiss on the cheek. Small acts of goodwill like this are as effective for you as they are for your partner, reminding both of you that underneath the issues, you really do care about each other.
Not everything can or should be talked through. When you’re in a good place to reflect on the fight, ask yourself whether there might have been outside stresses influencing you or your partner’s behavior. The worst fights my husband and I have ever had took place during the first 6 months of our new son’s life — the physical exhaustion took a heavy toll on our communication skills and gave us both a really short emotional fuse. If the fight represents a longstanding pattern, it’s certainly worth addressing at a deeper level, perhaps with the help of a therapist or counselor. But if it came out of nowhere, chances are it was triggered by a situation that had nothing to do with your relationship. In that case, resist talking the issue to death — just discuss how it made each of you feel, apologize for hurting each other, and look at how you can better support each other in future stressful situations.
Very few fights are all one person’s fault. But if you’re in that rare case, waiting for the offending party to apologize is likely to be a long wait. Your partner will either think they were justified in their behavior, or (more likely) their guilt and embarrassment will prevent them from approaching you.
A recent study showed that fights (especially between couples) usually boil down to a power struggle. Each person feels like they are in the less powerful place, and wants the other to relinquish power. Oddly, once they feel they’ve gained more power, they want the other person to show support for them — to stop adversarial behavior, to communicate openly and respectfully, to offer affection. (If you’ve ever been baffled by your girlfriend telling you to get the fuck out, then bursting into tears when you open the door, that’s probably what’s going on.)
No point in sugarcoating it: navigating this power struggle takes a lot of insight and even more personal strength. But it’s also the biggest, most foundational step you can take toward resolving the conflict. As satisfying as it is to have the other person admit that they were wrong, you’ll actually feel happier when the two of you are facing each other in a position of mutual trust and vulnerability. You don’t have to take blame that isn’t yours — all you have to do is adopt an open, nonthreatening posture (uncross your arms, open your hands, look them in the eye), acknowledge their feelings (“I don’t want you to feel hurt/disrespected/like you can’t trust me”), and remind them of your shared goal (to be close, to take care of each other, to get your work done). Taking the initiative might not melt their heart right away, but it will get the ball rolling.
Trying to be an emotional “rock” might seem like an expedient way to resolve a fight. After all, it takes more time to address two sets of emotions than just one, right? In fact, denying your own emotions and desires can sometimes only prolong a conflict. Particularly in romantic or family relationships, your partner in the fight usually knows you well enough to guess how you’re feeling—denying those feelings will only frustrate them, because it prevents closeness. Closeness comes from mutual vulnerability, and even when your closest connections are mad at you, they genuinely want to know how you feel so that they can be a better lover, parent, or friend.
Identifying your feelings isn’t just a favor to your partner. It also helps you. Psychiatrist Dan Siegel refers to this effect as “name it to tame it.” Emotions are a form of energy, and when we identify them and share them, even in simple terms (such as “I didn’t like it when…” or “I felt bad about…”), our ability to contain and manage that energy magically improves. Rather than staying stuck in that emotional state, your brain recognizes the state as a specific emotion (anger, fear, insecurity) and can make an intelligent choice about what to do with it.
Sometimes resolution is an open-and-shut case. You talk, you apologize, you learn, and life is better forever afterward. But sometimes it’s just not that tidy. Sometimes resolution takes years of practice. You might have to forgive (or be forgiven for) the same wounds every time you see the other person. You might have to spend a lot of time and emotional labor working through certain triggers. You might have to just accept that you don’t like them very much, and find ways to make the best of their presence in your life. The good news is that if you’re committed to becoming a better person, the ongoing work of resolving conflict will only help you toward that goal.
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