We’ve all been there, irritated at our partner, most likely after a fight when neither one of us has been at our best. We’ve been triggered and triggered again, over maybe little stuff that’s been blown out of proportion, or perhaps bigger stuff that never seems to get resolved. We’ve had a fight, maybe a big blowout fight, maybe just a few words that piss us off and make us withdraw, or leave and slam the door, or just not want to be around the other right now, thank you very much. We’re off in our respective corners, cooling off in theory but in reality we’re still processing what just happened and are not cooling off one bit.
We’re off in our respective corners, still mad, not happy at all. Now what? Great question, and one I ask my couples all the time. What happens next?
The critical consideration in this question of what happens next, is that in order to reconnect in a way that doesn’t retrigger the fight, we need to be cooled off. We need to be out of our amygdala, the center for the fight or flight response. We need our stress hormones that have been coursing around our bloodstream to dissipate. We need our prefrontal cortex, that part responsible for reasoning and logic and where our tools for communication reside, to be in operation. This part of our brain is bypassed when we feel threatened. It is bypassed and our amygdala runs the show to get us out of this dangerous situation. It is bypassed and takes time to settle back into operation.
Cooling off is an important stage in reconnecting. When I ask my couples how they cool off, their answers vary from watching Netflix, to listening to music, to taking a walk, to meditating, to playing a computer game, to knitting. All of these activities can calm the amygdala. The key consideration in cooling off is to refrain from thinking about what just happened, or else you can get triggered all over again.
Some couples have one partner who is able to cool off more quickly than the other. That partner then will often approach the other to extend an olive branch of peace. “How do you do that?” I ask very interestedly of these couples. Repair attempts are so important for healthy relationships. Interestingly, most couples don’t really know exactly what they do since they’ve never had to put words to it. We talk about it in session, and I tell my couples that receiving the olive branch of peace is as important as extending it. It takes two to tango, two to reconnect, two to mend the relationship. Naming successful actions makes these couples empowered to know that they already have successful tools in their toolbox.
Some couples swap back and forth between which partner makes the repair attempt. “How do you know if it’s your turn?” I ask. For some, it’s not a conscious back and forth, but just the way it shakes out. Others do remember who made the effort the last time, and this motivates them to make the effort this time. Sometimes I suggest this as a strategy for couples who have a hard time reconnecting after fights – to take turns (after cooling down, of course!). I coach these couples on how to do this by asking each partner what words they would like to hear in these situations. Usually, it’s some variation of “I’m sorry that we have ended up so disconnected. I care about you and this relationship. I want to reconnect. How about a hug?”
“Try it a few times and just see how it works out,” I say to my couples. “And – if your partner does take this risk to try a new thing – especially during a vulnerable time after a fight – your job is to meet them halfway. Your job is to accept the hug, and to be grateful that it was offered. Just try it and see what happens.”
Even with the best of intentions, the best counseling support possible, the most amount of time spent on working on communication, the most logical and collaborative processing of issues to avoid these fights happening again, there will be times when conflict arises, when we are in this horrible space of feeling disconnected and alone, angry and maybe sad or scared. But with an awareness of the importance of repair and reconnecting, as well as knowledge of the tools to do so, we can repair and reconnect more intentionally.
Write these words down somewhere: “I’m sorry that we’ve ended up so disconnected. I care about you and this relationship. I want to reconnect. How about a hug?” Then use them the next time you and your partner are feeling disconnected and see what happens.