How to fix a relationship after a big argument

Research done by The Gottman Institute found that the form of fighting in conflict is less predictive of problems and breakup in a relationship than a couple’s ability to quickly repair the damage and get back on track.

Rather than focusing on how often you’re fighting, it’s better to focus on improving how quickly you can repair after a fight. If repair happens quickly, you will build trust that even though things can get tough, you can recover quickly. This knowing can reduce anxiety and panic when conflict happens.

Are arguments in a relationship normal? 

Arguments and conflict in a relationship are normal and inevitable. There are many different types of conflict you may face in a relationship and all have the potential to destroy your relationship or bring you closer. 

Conflict has the potential to teach you how to better love and support one another and can actually be helpful

It’s not about whether or not you have conflict in a relationship; the important thing is how you approach it. 

Healthy relationships see conflict as an opportunity for growth and connection

If you don’t ever experience conflict in your relationship, it may be a sign that you are avoiding important conversations or dealing with conflict superficially. 

If that’s the case, it might be helpful to consider digging into your beliefs and fears around conflict as well as what resentments you may hold as a result of conflict avoidance. 

two people holding hands outside

The importance of repairing after an argument 

After a bad fight, your emotional bond in the relationship may be damaged and if it is not repaired, the relationship may start to feel unsafe or insecure. This can lead to negative sentiment override, a feeling of stuck-ness, and an increase in conflict. 

You may experience more criticism, contempt, withdrawal, and defensiveness. Your relationship may start to feel distant, you may experience anxiety about the relationship, you may start to question the relationship, and your fight/flight/freeze instinct may kick in.

During and after a big fight or heated argument, your neuroception and subconscious mind is trying to determine if the other person cares, if they’ll be there for you, and if you can trust them. If you don’t repair after a fight, your mind will tell you that they don’t care, they’re not there for you, and you can’t trust them.

Over time, you may become gridlocked in unhealthy patterns of communicating and relating. You may notice negative cycles in your relationship. 

Perhaps the same arguments and emotions resurface again and again without ever truly getting resolved. This leaves you feeling hurt and frustrated and you start to lose trust that you can resolve issues. As you become more entrenched in your positions, you get overwhelmed and may pull away or isolate.  

Some couples agree to not discuss an issue, but avoiding the issue can lead to emotional disengagement, which leads to negativity, loneliness, and disconnection. Trying to avoid or move on from an issue prematurely only works temporarily.

Most marriages that end are due to distancing as a result of constant bickering. The distancing leads the couples to lose friendship and connection. 

No matter how much you suppress your feelings, they don’t go away. You have to emotionally digest the issue together, create emotional safety, and re-connect to truly move forward.

Signs you need to repair your relationship

After an argument, you need to repair your relationship if: 

  • You’re having difficulty moving past something your partner said or did
  • An issue is coming up over and over again but isn’t getting resolved
  • You or your partner feel negative emotions, resentment, irritation, or anger towards your partner 
  • You’re ruminating on a moment or issue in your relationship 
  • An event from the past still feels activating in the present. You feel frustrated and hurt when you think or talk about the issue. 
  • You feel rejected
  • You’re bringing up past hurts in current conflicts 
  • You’re name calling, giving each other the cold shoulder, stonewalling, or giving each other the silent treatment 
  • You’re experiencing anxiety about your relationship
  • You’re feeling distant and starting to disengage emotionally 
  • You’re having difficulty trusting your partner 

The good news is that in these moments, the relationship can be repaired. You can break those negative cycles and change those patterns. You can heal from attachment injuries, reconnect, and rebuild trust.

Take a break

The best time to repair is during conflict or soon after conflict has ended. However, you or your partner may need some time to decompress after conflict, regulate your nervous systems, and regain composure before you’re ready to repair.

That’s totally okay!  

My recommendation is to take a 20 minute time out. You or your partner may need more time than 20 minutes and that’s okay. The important thing is that you verbally agree about how much time you’re taking before coming together for a conflict repair discussion.

I recommend 20 minutes because research has found that it usually takes at least 20 minutes for your nervous system to return to a calm, regulated state. During your break, take steps to self-soothe by practicing deep breathing, going for a walk, taking a bath, listening to calming music, drawing, or gardening.   

Sharing your perspectives and feelings 

Repairing after conflict requires vulnerability and responsibility. After an argument, you may be feeling hurt, shame, guilt, anger, fear, or anxiety. It can feel so scary to share your pain with your partner. 

An important part of the repair process is allowing your partner to enter your pain by sharing your point of view, feelings and experience with them.

Take turns speaking and share your triggers, past experiences and current thoughts that contribute to your feelings and perspective. By seeking to understand each other and empathize, you give the relationship an opportunity to heal.

Sharing so openly requires vulnerability and trust that the other person will respect and care for your emotions. If your partner has shared openly with you, be sure to validate your partner’s feelings and experience.

Remember, conflict is an opportunity for intimacy. It’s an opportunity to more deeply understand each other, to connect, and to show how much you care.

Taking Responsibility 

To repair, it’s also important for both people to accept responsibility for the ways in which they contributed to the conflict. It’s common for both partners to feel defensive and self-righteous.

Blame is often used as a defense against emotional pain, but while there is blame, there is no opportunity for repair. Shifting from blame to personal accountability is a step toward repair. 

Taking responsibility can be as simple as saying:

  • “It’s not all your fault, I play a role in this by…”
  • “I was too harsh with you.” 
  • “I was stressed and took it out on you, I’m sorry.”

Taking responsibility prevents the escalation of tension and is a step towards repair. Part of taking responsibility may include making an apology. The important thing is that you acknowledge the hurt you caused and take responsibility for your actions. 

Make a good apology

If hurt has been caused, a big part of repairing after conflict is apologizing. In general, apologies involve four steps. 

I am sorry written with scrabble letters

The first step is active listening.

You have to allow the other person to speak and to share what they’re thinking and feeling without interruption. If you notice yourself get defensive, take some deep breaths and try to remain curious about their experience. Active listening means seeing, witnessing, and seeking to understand their perspective and feelings.  

The second step is expressing empathy by compassionately empathizing with their pain.

If you’re not able to speak to the other person to hear their perspective and feelings, try visualizing how they’ve been impacted. Can you put yourself in their shoes? How would this have felt to you? This will allow you to empathize and validate their pain and show them that you understand the impact of your behavior.  

The third step is expressing regret for your role in contributing to their pain. 

This requires that you take responsibility for your actions and state the exact behavior you’re apologizing for. Do not justify, explain, or try to prove why you behaved in the way that you you did.  

The fourth step is making a plan for how you will prevent this from happening again.

You’ll share your plan for change and what you will be doing differently. Be sure to not promise anything in step four that you cannot follow through with.  

After you’ve apologized, remove all expectations around how they will respond. The purpose of your apology is to communicate that you understand the impact you’ve had on them, not to get a certain reaction or response from them.

They may not be ready to accept your apology right now. They may need some time and/or space to process your apology. They have the right to decide how, if, and when to respond to your apology.

It takes vulnerability, courage and bravery to make a good apology. When we receive a good apology, it can feel so relieving.

Make a plan for moving forward 

Next, you’ll need to make a plan for how you will improve your communication during your next argument or the next time conflict arises. Make sure you’ve fully emotionally digested the conflict so that you can both move forward with love, support, and peace.

At the end of any conflict discussion, I always recommend expressing gratitude for one another. I recommend that each of you express 3 things you’re grateful for about the other person. It’s a great way to repair, reconnect, and help one another to feel appreciated.

How to respond when your partner is trying to repair the relationship after an argument

couple hugging

Making a repair attempt is only one half of the equation. The other half is receiving! And the first step to receiving is recognizing the repair attempt and accepting it.

Start to look for times when your partner makes repair attempts – big and small. You don’t have to be in the middle of conflict to make efforts at repairing your relationship. Repair efforts can happen anytime.

If your partner is making attempts to repair the relationship after an argument, there are three different ways you can respond. You can respond in a positive way, in a neutral way, or a negative way. 

Responding positively looks like accepting the repair and reciprocating with a gesture of repair, going a long with the repair, comforting them, or trying to problem-solve.  

Responding in a neutral way looks like not accepting or rejecting the repair attempt.

Responding in a negative way looks like rejecting them, criticizing, getting defensive, attacking, or ignoring them.  

The more you deny your partner’s repair attempts, the less they will make them. And the more likely it is that your relationship is headed for separation.  

Train yourself to recognize when your partner is making a repair attempt. Notice how you respond. Consider how you would ideally like to respond in these situations. Practice responding in a positive way by accepting the repair and even reciprocating with a gesture of repair.  

What to do if they refuse to repair the relationship

It is important for both partners to habitually make repair efforts. If one partner doesn’t make repair attempts, you will start to feel the imbalance over time. Both people need to do their part. 

If you notice that neither of you are making repair attempts, set an example by making repair attempts. You’ll create a culture of repairing and over time, the other person will (hopefully) follow your lead and start to make repair efforts as well. 

If your partner refuses to respond when you attempt to reconcile, do the work within yourself to restore inner peace. There are typically lots of unprocessed emotional injuries in relationships. If they fester inside, you’ll need to find ways to release and process so that you can move forward as a couple.

If you can reconcile within your own heart and mind, that is enough for now. When the other person is ready, you will be able to meet them from a place of forgiveness and peace.

What to do if you have difficulty moving forward

When the person who needs the apology doesn’t feel fully witnessed and understood, they will bring it up over and over again until they feel fully seen and understood. 

If you feel irritated or annoyed by someone continually bringing something up and not letting it go, consider what they may be missing. Do they need to be more fully heard and witnessed in their experience? Do they need a different type of apology?  

If safety or trust was seriously hurt in a relationship, it will probably require more than one genuine apology. It takes time to re-build trust. Urgency is the enemy of apologies. 

It can be tempting to just want to forget about it and not bring it up again. Saying something like, “I already apologized” minimizes what happened and dismisses the other person’s feelings.

This is the opposite of what the other person needs. The worse thing you can do in these moments is to criticize them for not healing and moving on yet.  

The best thing to do when a terrible fight or argument is brought up again is to let them know that you’ve been thinking about it and how much it hurt them.

Remind them of your remorse and your plan for change so that it doesn’t happen again. Be patient with them. When they really see and feel that you are sorry and are doing the work to change, they are more likely to relax, begin to trust again, and heal.  

It takes time, intention, and effort to repair a relationship after a big argument or nasty fight. 

With mutual understanding, empathy, and care, and with open communication and the right skills, arguments can become an opportunity to make the relationship stronger and bring the two of you closer together.

How you approach the situation makes all of the difference in the world. If you are truly struggling to repair and fix your relationship after an argument, I recommend finding a couples therapist and attending couples counseling for more individualized relationship advice.

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