How do you get out of being upset/reconnecting after a fight
July 17, 2014 9:59 AM   Subscribe

I find myself spiraling down in negative emotions occasionally and want to learn about actual skills to pull myself out before the fight gets meta and out of hand.

There was some miscommunication last night between my boyfriend and I that resulted in dinner plans falling through and me waiting for an hour longer than expected. I was at home, so it wasn't anything terrible. The previous night I had wanted to hang out, but he planned to work on some projects on his own so I was already feeling a little bummed. Anyway, in that hour, I managed to dwell and get way more upset than needed, and continued to be upset when he finally did show up, and had no idea anything was wrong. (i didn't text/call him about it because he was in a work happy hour and i thought we'd just talk about it after)

I tend to shut down and withdraw when I'm upset and it becomes really difficult for me to articulate my feelings because my brain is used to avoiding confrontation. I know this is not healthy. It's something I'm actively working on, with the help of therapy, and I feel like I'm slowly improving. What makes the situation worse is that he becomes agitated by my silence and thinks I'm being passive aggressive and gets angry in response, which then makes me more upset, and it spirals. He starts raising his voice and I start crying and it gets way messier than needed before we both calm down.

My issue is that in the midst of this, or even before it, even if he apologizes, I'm already so far in the "upset mode" that I don't know how to get out of it. So when I finally communicate what was wrong, he apologizes for not explaining the change in plans, and... I don't know what to do next because I just spent the past hour feeling shitty, and it feels weird to just go, "ok! great! what should we eat for dinner?"

So how do you untangle out of fights? I don't want every minor thing to dragged out endlessly and it feels exhausting to both of us, but I also have trouble moving past issues feeling unresolved. Last night we finally made up and spent the next few hours trying to get back into the "groove" of things, but it felt like the fight took a toll on both of us and he still felt a bit distant. Then I tried initiating sex wanting to reconnect, but he said he was tired and didn't have the energy. I feel rejected, and once again gets in my head and get stuck in unhappy. He stayed late this morning cuddling and then we had sex. I feel like I should've just let last night go, but I still felt sad for some reason.

We have a really good relationship otherwise. It's just that when there is a conflict, our styles clash. We've talked about this a lot and are aware of our own shortcomings. I feel like we are both making an effort to meet each other halfway, so I want to find a way to get "unstuck" in these moods.

Specific actions or things to say would be really helpful. Thanks!
posted by monologish to Human Relations (13 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
My mantra would be "Keep your eye on the ball" - keep focus on finding the best resolution to the problem at hand, so you don't end up focusing on the other person as the problem or the enemy or on how upset or angry you are. If you stay focused on figuring out what the two of you want out of the situation and how to get there, then the two of you won't create as much distance during the problem-solving, and so there is less distance to be bridged afterwards.
Make it less about conflict and more about problem-solving. It will help immensely if he can do the same thing - it's harder to stay focused on problem-solving when you feel attacked (but being able to do that is valuable in all sorts of places)
posted by anonymisc at 10:19 AM on July 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oh my gosh, we just addressed a nigh-unto identical problem in therapy! Listen wisely, and let my $140/hour bill be YOUR gain!

- Go get the book "Hold Me Tight" by Dr. Sue Johnson from the bookstore/library. Both of you should read at LEAST the first fifty pages immediately. This book is the foundation of Emotionally-Focused Therapy (an evidence-based methodology founded in attachment theory).

- In a nutshell: this pattern results when both partners get stuck in a nasty spiral where they each amplify each others' feelings of rejection. It's a Mexican standoff, basically, where neither party wants to put down their (emotional, figurative) gun.

- You can bust out of the pattern by - when you are both CALM - sitting down and having a "when you do ____, it makes me feel ____, so INSTEAD, maybe you can do _____, and that would make me feel _____" dialogue.

The dialogue that Mr. Julthumbscrew and I had went like this: Him: "When you are sad and refuse to talk about it, I feel like you're pushing me away. That makes me feel rejected and hurt. Then, when you finally DO want to talk about it, I've been stewing in my own feelings for so long that I'm angry!" Me: "Okay. How can I make you feel NOT rejected?" Him: "Maybe when I ask what's wrong, you can say 'I'm sad now and not in control of my feelings - can we talk in an hour?' That way, I won't feel so pushed away, and we will definitely resolve the issue shortly." Me: "Sure, I can do that IF you can make an effort to be nice when it's time to talk." Both: "Deal!"

- We have tried this. It has worked stupidly well. It's amazing.
posted by julthumbscrew at 10:20 AM on July 17, 2014 [29 favorites]

Do you have a really good relationship otherwise? Are you still worrying that he leads a double life and is cheating on you?

The advice I gave the last time you asked about this relationship remains the same: I think you should break up with this guy and spend some time single. You have stuff that you need to work on and you're not going to be able to work on it while you're in the context of a romantic relationship.

If you're not going to break up, you may at least consider not living together. Living together is for engaged, committed couples who are planning on marriage, at least in my book.
posted by sockermom at 10:21 AM on July 17, 2014

Other people have offered great advice about how to stop the spiral from happening in the first place, but as far as this goes:

I don't know what to do next because I just spent the past hour feeling shitty, and it feels weird to just go, "ok! great! what should we eat for dinner?"

For real, I know it feels weird, but you should try it out anyway. I mean maybe frame it as something like, "thanks for apologizing. I was feeling really shitty, and I'm not totally calmed down, but that helped, and I'm working on calming down. Now. What should we eat for dinner?"

The fight doesn't get defused until both people defuse it; if he's apologizing sincerely, it's your turn to offer an olive branch.

That said, it should be okay, in a healthy relationship, for you to take the time you need to process all the gross feelings that come with a fight. It's not okay for your boyfriend to start yelling at you because you're doing that. But it's also okay for your boyfriend to need to know that you're processing, and not continuing to stew. So preface your silences with letting him know that they're just that, and not passive-aggression.
posted by like_a_friend at 10:26 AM on July 17, 2014 [6 favorites]

Just be honest, "It's not your fault but now I'm hungry AND I'm pissed off so...what do you want to eat?" It may not hurt to add, "It'll take me about 20 minutes to get over it, so just talk small talk to me for a bit."

I find that just expressing what I'm feeling and understanding that it's not anyone's fault, really helps. I admit though, I don't like being angry at people that I love and that I'm a naturally optimistic person at heart so after a few minutes, I'm fine.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:40 AM on July 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

My issue is that in the midst of this, or even before it, even if he apologizes, I'm already so far in the "upset mode" that I don't know how to get out of it.

One time my guy did something egregiously stupid. He apologized profusely. The next day I was still mad. I said to him: "I know you apologized but I'm still mad about it." and he said "ok." I got over being mad by the usual: time. You can't force yourself to let something go until you've really let go of it.

The emotional reactivity can change. Read that book "Attached" to know what your triggers are (i.e. abandonment) and how to predict & calm them. Know that using your words helps bring your prefrontal cortex online, it brings your reasoning mind into the picture which can help calm the emotional mind. So use your words as much as possible. If your bf is a good match you two will grow better at these kinds of conflicts without pushing each other's buttons so much.

If you get upset and he starts raising his voice, tell him: please don't raise your voice at me, it never helps me when you raise your voice when I'm upset. Hopefully this will make you feel more in control of yourself and give him a reminder to calm down too.

Also maybe you need more than an apology. Do you get an apology and a hug? A nice warm kiss? If you need to feel more reassured, ask for that. It may help you get over the bad feelings.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:43 AM on July 17, 2014 [6 favorites]

When I fight with my sons, we work on problem solving. We work on "What went wrong? Why did it go wrong? And how can we have this not happen again?" When we can answer those questions in a solid way, then, yes, I can let it go because it isn't just going to sit on the backburner waiting to bite me in the ass again sometime. It will, in fact, get fixed.

Feelings come from somewhere. They are not just nebulous random nonsense. Thus, apologies tend to not really work if there are no amends made or lessons learned for how to do it better next time. That "I said I am sorry, now you are supposed to just drop it!" thing is really common in abusive relationships where no real change happens and tends to go with an attitude of "I expect you to forgive and I can continue to crap on you."

My ex husband routinely turned me down for sex. And he always blamed me for it. So I am kind of inclined to interpret the sexual rejection (from last night) as kind of vindictive and controlling on his part. And that kind of thing may be why you are having so much trouble letting go of emotional upset: Because the upset is tied to real issues and is not simply neurotic. In my marriage, a lot of those things just never really got resolved. I am now divorced. So I think you probably have some deeper issues you need to work on.

For me, the emotional spiral you describe is helped by cuddling and sex, validation and feeling accepted and heard. Because feelings come from somewhere. So, barring something like "I am mad at everything because of PMS", if I am mad, sad, whatever, at a particular person, they probably did something to cause those feelings. And when you asked for sex, he rejected you. You asked for the thing that most likely would have stopped your bad feelings and he just gave you one more reason to feel bad.

This does not sound to me like an otherwise great relationship, except for this one little thing. It sounds to me like you are fairly good at asking for what you need in the face of feeling bad and all that and he is just not cooperating.
posted by Michele in California at 10:50 AM on July 17, 2014 [8 favorites]

This is only a small piece of the problem, but consider that it might not be coincidental that the context involved late dinner. Being hungry is one of those physical things that makes it tougher to manage emotions. It helps me tremendously to always have a snack handy, and if it looks like dinner is going to be late, eat the snack first and then tackle the dinner problem.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 11:22 AM on July 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

Anyway, in that hour, I managed to dwell

I'm already so far in the "upset mode" that I don't know how to get out of it.

Patient: Hey doc, it hurts when I do this.
Doc: So don't do that.

I quip, but this has totally been a challenge in my life. Not about fights in particular, but about living way way WAY too far up in my own head and then needing to deal with the disparity from "in my brain, which only I can see" vs "in real life, where everyone else lives." I had imaginary conversations where I try to anticipate how things will go, consider possible ways a relationship could roll out, what my boss might want to say to me, and so on.

Then when reality comes around it stubbornly doesn't align with my anticipation. Sometimes, like your boyfriend not-blowing-you-off, it's a change for the better. But you've already been dealing with this fictional unpleasantness, or you have bought and paid for this misery ahead of time so now you get to experience it live versus in anticipation.

I get that you're conflict-averse and that's feeding into this. But you need to (a) internalize that the minor & quick questions/assertions actually head off the big conflicts and (b) structure some of your behavior with the foreknowledge that you're bad with confrontation and feeling rejected and head stuff off at the pass.

Boyfriend is five minutes late? Texts are wonderful things. "Hey, you going to be much later? If so I'll watch this tv ep I have been waiting on/clean the bathroom/learn to juggle." Negotiate with your boyfriend - in part of your meeting halfway - ways you can say "I don't want to talk about this right now, but I'm a little upset about something and I'm processing it right now" so he doesn't think this is a passive-aggressive move. See something heading in a direction that you think is not cool with you? Bring it up then.

It's hard, I know, but you can cut your teeth on smaller assertions AND avoid the need for larger ones.
posted by phearlez at 11:40 AM on July 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

When he apologized did you feel like he really "got" why you were upset? Did you feel like your feelings were validated? Or was it just a "my bad"?

I think more than just accepting responsibility the reason apologies are important is for showing empathy. It's where you go, "Oh damn. When I did X, without meaning to, I really hurt this person. That sucks." And then you want to comfort them and try to make it up to them.
posted by Asparagus at 11:45 AM on July 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've found that the quickest way to clear lingering negative emotions after being angry is intense physical exercise. It's a brain chemistry thing.

It will be much easier for the two of you to reconnect once you get your brain chemistry sorted. So go for a vigorous run first, then cuddle.
posted by Jacqueline at 2:31 PM on July 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Don't stew. Go do something else. Text him that you're doing something else, if necessary, but don't go do something else at him, just do something that's not being-a-martyr-waiting-for-him for a while. If your thoughts are spiraling into blame or anger, remind yourself that he probably has a reasonable explanation for what happened, then don't think about it or have imaginary conversations about it until you can talk to him face-to-face. Basically, assume good faith.

If he's not trustworthy in a way that lets you assume good faith, that's the problem.
posted by jaguar at 3:10 PM on July 17, 2014

Instead of stewing, I find it really helpful to write down what I'm feeling, and why I think I'm feeling it. Not just "I feel disrespected cuz he's a jerk who doesn't call", but "I feel abandoned, because this is a pattern, and also my parents did it this other way and I'm defensive about how I did a mean thing earlier and..." I don't have to share it with my guy (though I often will), it's mostly so I can make sense of my own emotions and work through them faster.
posted by ldthomps at 10:27 AM on July 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

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