What to do after an argument in your couples therapy
Finding Calm After Conflict
Chances are, if you are in couples therapy for any length of time, you are going to have at least one explosive argument in session – right in front of your therapist. She may try to calm you down, or mediate the situation, or might even feel overwhelmed herself and not be able to stop the argument from escalating. You may have stepped into that same old way of arguing that you carry on at home, or it may erupt out of nowhere and surprise both, you and your partner.
Couples therapy is a place to go where you can air what’s on your mind, be listened to in a safe environment, with a third party who doesn’t take sides; perhaps hear your partner from a different perspective, or learn new ways of communicating that are more effective; and heal some of the hurt that has already happened in your relationship. But couples therapy also takes courage and can sometimes feel hard when you’re being so open with, and in front of your partner. Sometimes you hear things that are really hard to hear.
Sometimes your feelings will be so intense and your disappointment or hurt will be so deep, you won’t be able to stop from blowing up and raising your voices at each other. Your partner may say something that really hurts, that makes you feel you can no longer go on being with that person. You may feel defensive, or such shame or humiliation and what has just been said. You probably won’t see your partner in a favorable light and will feel disgusted and intolerant of his or her behaviors or words.
A general rule of thumb in conflict is that the more rage and anger you or your partner presents in your argument, the more underlying hurt or woundedness is there, hiding, or the more one’s vulnerability is being protected. But that’s not usually apparent in the midst of an argument. And our efforts to be self-protective are usually the exact actions or tones that make our partners angry and put them on the attack… Which only triggers you and puts you on the defensive.
You may say (or hear) things you regret. You may cross the line and attack your person‘s character. You may go after what you know is most vulnerable – and therefore most out of line; you may generalize and condemn; you may feel powerless or hopeless and just be in attack mode. You may cry; or make fun of this person you feel you don’t even know anymore or can’t stand. You may unload all the resentments and grudges you’ve been carrying.
One or the other of you may feel it’s a silly unimportant thing – this thing you’ve gone to war over. Or you may have tried to say things in a reasonable way but feel like none of it gets listened to. In any case, you’ve found yourselves in the midst of a terrible argument with raised voices and little or no self-restraint. No matter what you or your partner- or the therapist tries, there is no further understanding or calm or reconciliation to be found. Sometimes there will be days like that.
The argument doesn’t end, when your therapist says “time’s up“, and you leave feeling low, angry, disgusted, sure this can never be resolved. There so many things your partner said that make you furious every time you replay them in your mind.
You stand outside your therapist’s office and continue the battle on the street. You want to rehash everything said. You want to get the last word in. You want your partner to feel shitty, just like you do. Your intention is to bring him or her down. There is no desire for connection, understanding, closeness. You must say everything on your mind – no matter how much it might hurt. Or you might feel the need to clam up and shut down and only be hostile to your partner, trying to make them suffer as much.
All of the above expressions and actions are (as I am sure you know) the least effective ways to get your own needs met in your relationship. These of course, are all very normal and natural ways of reacting to relationship stress, but not so helpful in resolving conflict.
You wonder if you should broach the argument again, knowing it’ll probably go down the same upsetting path. You may have aftershock arguments over the next few days together that are triggered by the terrible unresolved feelings from the argument in your therapist’s office. Or wonder if you should maintain stony silence and wait to talk more, only when you’re back in the therapist’s office and have some level of safety.
I have seen this happen from time to time in my office. Often, this intensity of argument in a couple – who are in couples therapy – turns out to be a potential point of connection down the road a bit, even though it started off being so painful and upsetting. Each of your own hurts has revealed itself and come to the forefront of this personal space you and your therapist have agreed upon as the place you will attempt healing and resolution. You may not be able to avoid the argument actually coming up and out, but you can impact how you deal with it once it’s happened.
I would recommend the following tools that are helpful for self-care and relationship care, after a really upsetting couples therapy session:
1. Start with an intention to do no further harm, and take some quiet separate time.
2. Acknowledge and articulate to yourself your own hurt and pain. Name your feelings.
3. Journal out everything or write a letter, or bullet points of most important concerns you have.
4. Take a walk or a bike ride or run or do yoga – do something active to help your body move through the terrible tension of feelings it is gripped with.
5. Have a list of a handful of healthy go-tos (listen to music, watch a movie, call a friend, be creative, etc) that really help you calm your feelings, so you can regain the capacity to talk again. And listen.
6. Do some breathing exercises. Breathe in anger. Breathe out letting go. Cool down hot fiery emotions by imagining blowing a cooling breath over a too hot bowl of soup.
7. Do a “Just like me“ Practice:
This person has a body and a mind, just like me.
This person has feelings, thoughts, and emotions, just like me.
This person has, during his or her life, experienced physical and emotional pain and suffering, just like me.
This person has, at some point, been sad, just like me.
This person has been disappointed in life, just like me.
This person has sometimes been angry, just like me.
This person has been hurt by others, just like me…
Click here to receive the extended ‘Just Like Me’ Practice
8. Plan to check in, in a few hours or next morning at sometime – even if briefly. Check in and see if you and your partner are able to talk yet. Be OK if one if you is not ready yet, and check in again at a later point.
9. Be curious and not furious.
10. Find your own non-contentious heart and bring it to your discussions.
These tips are useful to couples who have conflict in their relationships and want better ways of resolving differences.
What’s on your mind about handling conflict in your relationships? What works or doesn’t work for you when you want to get past a hurdle or argument? I’d love to hear from you.
If you or someone you love is having difficulty in your relationship, please contact me for a couples therapy session.
For more ideas on how to bring more calm and less worry into your life, click here for a free email course on Mindfulness.
Listening with Heart
Cindi Rivera, MFT
Marriage, Family Therapist
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