After the Fight

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– Originally published on DrKoop.com

When we are feeling angry, hurt, or estranged, we have less chance for success in our negotiations. Regardless of our fighting styles, we all know that we are less articulate when we are wracked with anger. Yet it is often then that we may blurt out a hurtful comment, intending to sting rather than placate. And then we have to apologize for our comment as well as resolve whatever misdeed initiated the argument in the first place. Why do we do this when we know it is not in our best interest?

Anger is a compelling emotion. We can feel owned by it rather than owning it. Heightened negative emotions tend to decrease our impulse control mechanisms as well, and we easily hear ourselves spitting out invectives we neither mean nor believe to be helpful. When threatened, we either attack or retreat, and we display more primitive behaviour than normal. It is not uncommon to remember a verbal arrow received during an argument even when we can no longer recall the basis of the disagreement. A confession of “but I didn’t mean it” goes only a short distance in healing wounds inflicted by thoughtless name-calling. And of course we tend to remember the shots we received and forget the ones we threw.

Following an argument, we need to take some space to cool off. This is precisely the reasoning behind time-outs for naughty children. When we isolate ourselves and consider all sides of an issue, we are better prepared to devise plans to resolve the distress. he problem is that we often don’t leave early enough in the altercation. One person hisses a sarcastic comment and the other, hurt and angry, feels justified in topping the insult. The volleys begin. By the time we realize the mistake we are making, it is too late to ‘take it back’.

Our wounded feelings after skirmishes beg to be resolved. ‘Making up’ needs to include debriefing (not rehashing) of the argument. We can ask questions about how it began, what it was really about, how we could have resolved it better, what compromises and creative answers could we invent to do it better next time? We can apologize and forgive, and then forget. We can reunite as friends and lovers, committed to each other and to our relationship.

It is not accidental that many couples make love after an argument. In fact, some report that sex is often particularly hot following a fight. We come together in high emotion and convert anger to passion. Good will returns and we experience heightened intimacy. In these moments we revalidate our love for each other.

We can learn together with our mates how to resolve differences without arguments. As couples, we can agree to renegotiate our interpersonal ‘contracts’. We can redesign our relationships to fit us uniquely and renew our commitments to learning how to live together peacefully and harmoniously. We come to realize that in such a supportive and rewarding environment, discord does not flourish.