How Unpacking a Fight Can Keep Your Marriage Strong

In a marriage, disagreements and fights are inevitable. But they don’t have to cause lasting damage to your relationship. In fact, how you respond after a fight can actually strengthen your relationship – helping you to learn more about your spouse, improve your communication, practice forgiveness, and avoid more fights in the future.

Dr. Tim Heck, a licensed marriage and family therapist, recently sat down with the team at Morning Air® to discuss how to process a fight, so that we can keep our marriages and families strong. Below, Dr. Heck shares some of the key aspects of ‘unpacking’ a fight and important questions to ask yourself.

What is Your Fighting Style?
I usually talk to couples about two dimensions to pay attention to when it comes to conflict. One dimension is how serious, or how dedicated the couple are to getting through the problem and really tackling it. One spouse may have an opinion and one might have another, but they have a different level of interest in how important that issue is to them, and how much they want to get into it. The other dimension is how much focus are they giving to the relationship itself as they’re working on that problem.

So then what you end up with is people who are really high on wanting to solve the problem, but they may be low in terms of regarding and paying attention to the relationship. Now, that kind of person is going to take a ‘win’ approach to the conflict. Whereas you take someone else who may have a rather low regard for the problem, but a high regard for the relationship. That person is more likely to yield.

Did you Exploit Your Spouse’s Vulnerabilities?
The paradox of marriage is that in the relationship we’re in we find the closest degree of intimacy, wherein we can be open. When you talk to couples who are engaged, one of the things they’ll tell you about their relationship is that it feels safe. They feel like they can say virtually anything to their partner and they know it will be trusted and handled with care.

Sadly, when that couple marries and the relationship begins to experience some of those predictable conflicts/fights/episodes, sometimes that material becomes the fodder that is used, unfortunately, somewhat as an arsenal against the partner. Now, that person who was once the safest person on earth has become somewhat of a danger. That really breaks down the trust between the two, and affects the relationship so negatively.

Why is This Worth Fighting Over?
You can usually tell how significant the issue is by how intense the fight becomes. When one partner is getting highly emotional, volatile, escalated, loud, pushing for their position, that means that we’re getting close to something that’s very precious to that individual.

So it’s always good to try to drill down and find out what that is, otherwise it might get lost and beat up in the middle of that conflict between the two. When they both have something seriously valuable to them at risk, then it really becomes an intense fight that can become problematic for them.

How to Unpack a Fight
A lot of what we do in a counseling session is we process, or unpack, the fight. And when you unpack the fight we talk about how you felt during the fight. Were you hurt? Did you get angry? Were you sad? Did you feel criticized? Worried? All of those emotions. And then ask questions like, ‘What was getting triggered for you?’

It’s an interesting thing because we try to get the couple to step away from the fight, almost as if they were watching a review of the fight, to push the remote and stop the play to say, ‘What were you thinking right then? What was going through your mind at that point? How were you feeling?’ And at that point we can begin to get at the real issues that were inside of that fight, and hopefully they can find the conversation that they lost in the middle of the fight.

A lot of people say that a fight is really the result of not being able to make your point, and when you can’t make your point you do “fighting things” – you get louder, more critical, more defensive. So hopefully in that after-the-fight conversation, we can find the real point they were trying to make and not get right back into the fight.

Always Seek Forgiveness
I think the key is for the two to take responsibility for their contribution to the mess that happened. If we would be willing to say, ‘I was wrong. I did this and I shouldn’t have. I said that, and that was really unkind,’ and ask for forgiveness; taking responsibility for what we do to contribute to the fight getting out of hand is the best way to soften things for everybody. … It’s not about not making mistakes, because we will. But how do we fix those mistakes when we make them, to correct the relationship and heal the relationship in the process?

Listen to the full conversation with Dr. Tim Heck below:

Morning Air can be heard weekdays from 6-9 a.m. Eastern/3-6 a.m. Pacific on Relevant Radio®.