Repairing a Relationship Argument


a disconnected couple


A couple is sitting in a restaurant. They’re not talking often. They’re on their phones texting, looking out the window, picking at their food, and looking bored and unhappy.

Let’s imagine that on the way to the restaurant, my imaginary couple, Jane and Devon, got in a minor argument. Jane complained that Devon was driving too fast. He snidely told her that unlike her, he’s never had a speeding ticket.

Nothing more is said. But you could cut through the tension with a knife. They fume in silence the rest of the way to the restaurant. This argument is like so many others—unfinished and unresolved.

Jane starts to think of other people that know her well.  None of them would say rude things like that to her. They all would slow down knowing the speed scared her.  But then she thinks, “What do I expect? Devon is just inconsiderate through and through.” Jane looks at him and rolls her eyes.

Devon starts to muse about his new co-worker’s wife.  He wonders what life would be like married to her instead and thinks, “She probably would be easier to talk to about all the crap I’m dealing with at work. Jane used to be like that,” Devon silently sighs, “but now she doesn’t seem to notice or care when I’ve had a bad day.”

Jane and Devon’s eyes meet.  “How did things get like this?” Jane wonders silently.  “When did it get so hard to have a simple conversation? I feel so lonely I could scream!”

Devon looks at her and thinks, “I want my best friend back. Where did she go?” Instead of trying to cross the widening abyss, Devon asks how Jane’s dinner tastes. He just doesn’t want to say anything that might start another argument.


Unfortunately relationships can sometimes go this way.  Squabbles can be started and stopped abruptly, troubles can lay unresolved between people, one or both may start comparing the other to real or imagined people from the past or present, one or both people in the relationship may stop reaching out to each other seemingly to prevent further conflict, and contempt for each other can grow.

Fortunately, there are things couples like Jane and Devon can do.

Intuitively lots of people try to repair squabbles. Gottman, a psychologist in Seattle, has identified a number of things couples do to try to make things better in his research. Below are some of the repair attempts he’s identified, exemplified by Jane and Devon’s speeding squabble:

Repairing Arguments

Use humour. “Oh geez, I thought I was driving my Lamborghini!!” After this remark, Devon could slow down with nothing more needing to be said.

Agree. “Yeah I am going a bit fast aren’t I? I’ll slow down.”


Understand. Empathize. “I know you get really scared when anyone speeds. I get it. I’d be scared too if I’d been in a car accident.”

Monitor the conflict to let the other person know if either or you is getting too upset or if the argument if getting off-track. “I’m getting too upset right now. I need to calm down and then talk.” “We were talking about my driving, not me leaving dishes in the sink.”


Reinforce we-ness. “I’m glad we can talk about stuff like this instead of just brushing it under the carpet.”

Make promises. “I promise I’m really going to try to drive more slowly from now on.” Of course Devon should only say that if he means it!

Question. “ Can you tell me what speed would make you comfortable?” To be effective, the question has to be from a genuine feeling of curiosity.

Take responsibility. “I’m shouldn’t have sped. Sorry.”

We’re okay. Devon and Jane could let each other know the relationship is okay even if they don’t find an immediate solution to their squabble.

Compromise. This involves finding some middle ground. “I’ll slow down Jane.” “I’ll be on time when we have plans okay Devon?”

Request direction. “Jane, what could I say that would make this better?’

Ask for credit. “I have driven much more slowly over the last month, don’t you think?”

Stop. Put an end to the squabble if it’s getting too negative.

Express affection. Devon or Jane could give one another a hug or say something affectionate.

Making attempts to repair a fight gone-bad can help couples continue to turn towards each other instead of away or against one another. I’d be interested in hearing what you have to say. What’s worked in your relationship?