by Clinton Power, Grad. Dip Couns/Psych., Ad. Dip Gestalt Therapy
PACT Level 2 Therapist, PACT Ambassador
All couples fight at one time or another. If you think you should never argue, you’re unrealistic. A more productive goal is to learn how to quickly and efficiently resolve your disagreements.
When there's distress in your relationship, you want to move promptly to make things better and reassure each other that you’re in this together and you have each other’s back.
Here are four ways to resolve relationship conflict quickly and reduce relationship distress:
The primitive parts of your brain are quick to identify threats. These threats can be perceived in facial expressions, gestures, postures, certain words or phrases, and tone of voice.
When your primitive brain starts to perceive threat, an increase in your body’s stress response happens, which can lead to defensiveness and further errors in your appraisal and interpretations of what’s actually going on.
So, to ensure you don’t trigger the primitive parts of your partner’s brain, it’s vital to approach discussions in a friendly manner.
While your partner may interpret your nonverbal behavior as threatening, the good news is you can make it part of the solution.
Maintain good eye contact and gaze with soft eyes at your partner. This behavior shows you’re giving the conversation your attention and actively listening. Tilting your head is another non-threatening behavior that corresponds to active listening.
When you’re in the middle of an argument, it's easy to feel like there's a physical and emotional chasm between you and your partner. A simple way to reduce that distance is to be close to your partner. Sit close to one another and reduce the physical space.
Another way to foster emotional intimacy during an argument is to touch with affection. Physical affection is a powerful reminder of your love and care for your partner and can help you feel like you’re collaborating to find a solution that works for both of you.
Holding hands while you’re having a difficult discussion quickly relieves tension, and the soothing physical connection helps you regulate each other’s nervous systems.
The facial expression you don during a dispute has a significant impact on how your contributions to the conversation are perceived. Maintain a friendly facial expression. If you can, smile. Similarly, the tone of your voice can impact your partner during a disagreement. Speak using a sing-song pitch (prosody) to appear non-threatening.
Your brain has an evolutionary negativity bias. This means that you’re more likely to make negative conclusions and assumptions in the absence of positive information.
Suppose you’re under-communicating, avoiding conflict, or tend to have low expression. In that case, your partner may automatically assume the worst about your intentions, which is a problem when it comes to resolving conflict.
A sincere apology can help you repair hurt feelings quickly. An apology isn’t about being wrong or admitting guilt; it's about leading with relief so your partner feels understood and supported.
To apologize effectively, get in touch with your heart. Think about your love and care for your partner. Share those feelings along with your apology, acknowledging that what you said or did has caused hurt. Sincere apologies are powerful and make a significant difference in resolving conflict.
Sometimes, your words don’t come out the way you mean. It’s okay to ask your partner for another attempt to repair if you feel your words didn’t match your intention.
For example, “Sorry, that came out wrong. Can I please say that again?" is a great way to ensure sincerity and a strong repair.
When you experience a relationship rupture, whether big or small, look for your contribution to the problem and apologize sincerely to circumvent the brain’s negativity bias taking hold and amplifying the difficulty between you.
An ongoing conflict that is unresolved often spirals into ever-increasing fights that escalate in duration and intensity.
Over time, intense and sustained experiences of threat in your relationship can lead to distressing events forming in long-term memory, reinforcing your stress response in future interactions with your partner.
For these reasons, you mustn’t hide behind criticism and defensiveness. Instead, lead with open and gentle vulnerability.
Dropping into vulnerability means sharing your needs using “I” statements. An “I” statement is a way of communicating that focuses on expressing how you feel when something happens. They follow the pattern I feel ____ when you ___.
For example, “I feel scared when you leave the room while we’re fighting. Can you please stay so we can work this out?” This statement tells your partner what problem you’re experiencing, how they’re contributing to it, and then follows up with a request to resolve the issue. You don’t use criticism or defensiveness. The focus is on finding ways to meet your needs.
When you take responsibility for your part of the problem, you’re also showing your vulnerability. You may say, “Yes, you’re right. I have done that in the past. I know it’s distressing for you when I do that.” It’s not about laying or accepting blame, but rather acknowledging your contribution to the dispute.
A common mistake is to focus on what you’re not willing to do or give. This approach perpetuates the brain’s negativity bias instead of resolving the conflict. If you both look for what you are willing to do, the focus is on reaching out and solving the problem.
Vulnerability is challenging because it may leave you feeling exposed. Anything that feels a little uncomfortable or risky in terms of self-disclosure is probably a vulnerable statement. Remember, if you lead with vulnerability, your partner is more likely to lower their defenses and be open to responding to what you need.
If you’re talking about the same argument over and over and not getting anywhere, or if the fight is escalating, one or both of you are likely moving out of your window of tolerance.
Originally coined by Dr. Dan Siegel, window of tolerance refers to what happens in the brain when you become dysregulated. Essentially, the executive parts of your brain that are involved with problem-solving and thinking through your actions and consequences go offline, and the primitive parts of the brain related to survival and dealing with threats start to run the show.
When this happens in a fight, it's time to pause and take a break. You then want to focus on self-soothing and calming activities to regulate your emotions and physiology so you are able to bring the brain’s executive parts back online.
This strategy is not avoidance or ignoring the problem. It's more like a break when you're watching an intense and heavy film. You press pause, get up, and stretch – step away from the tension of the plot, take a bathroom break, get a snack or drink. Five minutes later, you feel refreshed, and you're ready to sit down and watch the rest of the movie.
This tool is useful when you start to feel stuck or the conversation is not progressing. Taking a break. Soothing yourself helps refresh your perspective so you can have another go at resolving the issue more productively.
Relationship conflict is challenging and can be emotionally draining. Resolving conflict quickly by relieving distress and attending to psychological and biological factors, through the strategies outlined above and other PACT exercises, can strengthen your relationship and make you a more resilient couple both in the new year and in the long run.