After the Argument: Integration vs. Fragmentation

You have just had an argument with your partner – the same conflict yet again! You know this is a pattern for you and your partner and you know how it goes: a misunderstanding, hurt feelings, yelling, criticism, one person wants to keep hashing it out while the other person heads for the door. You also know what follows: hours or even days of silence and sharp resistance to reconnection. Whew, this is painful.

I hear some version of this conflict with my clients daily and the difficulty that they often have in reconnecting. Usually, I hear that the conflict is “brushed under the rug” as both partners are simply thankful to not be yelling anymore, to be touching again, and to feel relaxation in their bodies. Bringing the argument back up is out of the question yet when it does come up again – and it most surely will – the criticism cuts just a little deeper and the resistance to connecting is just a little bit stronger.

It takes practice and dedication to actually reconnect.

I tell my clients that debating the point (the content of the argument, i.e. who did or said whatever) is less important than moving as slowly as you need to in order to keep track of yourself and your partner. In other words, how you argue is more important than what you argue about. Arguments can speed us up exponentially: our speech quickens, our gestures get bigger, and our minds race. Once you “wake up” in the middle of the argument – move from tunnel vision back into an awareness that lets you feel your surroundings – you have the opportunity to slow down and ask these questions:

  • Can I feel my body / my emotions?
  • Can I see my partners facial / body language?
  • Can I find the understandable part in my partners concerns?

If you cannot answer these questions, this is a good time for an intentional time out which means three things specifically:

  1. “I / we are too activated to have this conversation:” Take responsibility here – NEVER tell you partner that they are the one who is too activated. Most likely, you are both too activated and taking responsibility for yourself and the “we” you are being a good teammate vs. a blaming adversary.
  2. “Let’s step away and intentionally regulate ourselves for 20 minutes:” When we actively take steps to calm our emotions and nervous systems by taking a walk, doing push-ups, meditating, etc. it takes the nervous system 20 – 30 minutes to flush out the stress hormones that were released during the argument. This is not about escaping conflict, this is about dedicating yourself to communicating effectively with your partner in service of the relationship.
  3. “I promise to return because you / we / this conversation is important:” After the 20 – 30 minute break, make sure you check in with each other to find out if you are BOTH ready to continue the conversation.

Once you can answer these questions, you may notice that you’re breathing is a little deeper and your jaw is not straining as much as before, and you are now in a better place to reconnect.

Even when issues cannot be resolved, you and your partner will feel the benefits of practicing this together. It shows commitment to arguing better and commitment to your relationship. This practice begins to build in trust and resiliency. It also increases tolerance for ambiguity.

Often, the pattern of arguments that couples experience are in fact the deeper threads in the relationship – issues that are fundamental to your unique pairing. The purpose of these issues is often not to resolve them but to recognize that they are there and in process and that you are dedicated to keeping the conversation open.

These are the threads that hint at your evolution as an individual and as a couple.

Again, you don’t have to be fully resolved to begin to reconnect – rather, let your partner know that you recognize things are not fully resolved and that you are committed to continue to explore this issue with them.

Whether or not the issue is fully resolved, it is important to find a way to soften with each other. Stepping away and not coming back for several hours or several days simply deepens the divide. Once you have acknowledged the argument and taken responsibility for what you can, like raising your voice, criticizing something specific, or initially not being open to talk about something, extend reconnection options:

  • Hug, kiss, and offer some skin to skin time
  • Take a walk together
  • Get busy doing an activity with each other
  • Make commitments to  keep an eye on certain issues that surfaced during the argument and agree to mitigate ways that you communicate that make it hard for your partner to hear you, i.e. raising your voice, comparing them to their mother, etc.

When these reconnection options are not offered or engaged in, fragmentation can happen. One or both partners may feel hurt that they were not reached out to or didn’t hear that they are loved despite the conflict. This is not coddling - this is appreciation of your partner as a multi-faceted human being who is both wonderful and frustrating. This does not mean you have to recite a love sonnet to each other – just a few genuine words of acknowledgement is often enough. A little willingness goes a long way!

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