The Marriage Podcast for Smart People


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Here’s The Best Thing You Can Do After a Fight With Your Spouse

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]. 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