Would you like your relationship to be conflict free? If “yes,” you may want to think again. Conflict is one of the best ways for couples to see how your two unique personalities are not connecting; conflict helps you understand each other more deeply and better meet each other’s needs. When a couple says “We never fight”, I worry they may be avoiding issues and are heading for emotional disengagement. However, too much conflict is not good either. Conflict can get out of hand through name calling, insults, and purposefully hurting each other. This happens especially when emotional reactions turn into physiological ones, what John Gottman calls “diffuse physiological arousal”—a fight or flight response. Learning to manage your physiological reaction is important here, as is doing a repair—making up. One of the most important skills couples need for a long and satisfying relationship is mastering the art of conflict repair. This includes saying you are sorry.
Relationships are about connection. When conflict escalates, a little damage is done to that connection. Processing conflict through a repair (making up) acknowledges that you are still good together. Saying sorry is a cornerstone of reconnection.
Saying sorry lets your partner know that you understand you are not perfect and that you are willing to own up to your mistakes. Apologies also make it clear you are concerned about your partner’s feelings—you care enough to recognize hurt and work to heal it. Apologies are useful at two points in an escalating conflict discussion: During conflict saying you’re sorry can help avoid further escalation. And after conflict has escalated apologizing speeds healing.
Tips for Saying You’re Sorry:
- Get in the Right Mindset: Recognize that saying sorry is not a sign of weakness; it’s not about winning or losing but about healing and taking responsibility. Nothing builds trust in a relationship like a genuine apology because it conveys personal responsibility. First, deal with your physiological arousal; this may require 30 minutes of taking your mind off the issue which escalated things and calming down. Then, try to understand your partner’s hurt.
- Understand Your Partner’s Hurt: Understand your partner’s reality, without becoming defensive, so that you can truly apologize. This could mean asking something like this: “I want to make sure I really understand how you feel here; can you tell me what’s going on for you?”
- Describe Your Reality: Once you understand where your partner is coming from, describe what set the stage for you becoming upset. What were your triggers? Triggers are personal elements that set you on edge; they are about you, not your partner, so avoid blame. Using “I” statements and focusing on your emotions helps: “I was upset after a long day of work; the word finances is a trigger for me.” Avoid using “but” as this can erase was said prior.
- Take Responsibility: With gentle words acknowledge the hurt you caused. Compare the following examples:
“I’m sorry you felt I raised my voice. I really wasn’t upset; and you kept asking me about finances when you knew I was tired. I was a little angry but you pushed my buttons.”
“I’m sorry for yelling at you and calling you names. I was angry and I acted out on you. That wasn’t fair.”
The first example is an attempt to save face and avoid taking responsibility; the second is authentic—the ultimate antidote to defensiveness is taking responsibility.
- Use Apologies Appropriately: Apologizing again and again for the same things is not effective. If you find yourself calling your partner nasty names every time conflict escalates, sign up for some marriage counselling and individual anger management so that your actions convey responsibility and concern for your partner’s well-being.
Dealing with tears: Avoid using apologies when you see your partner crying, at least until you understand their reality. Crying can be a sign of hurt or it can be a sign of being overwhelmed and needing comfort. Getting to know what your partner needs when tears are present is key.
- About Forgiveness: An apology should be given without strings attached; if your partner can accept the apology and acknowledge forgiveness, great; “Thanks for saying that; I needed to hear that” is all this needs to be. However, the person who was hurt may need time to digest hurt and accept a repair. Like an apology, forgiveness is useful as an authentic feeling not as something done because you are supposed to say it. And, some issues require deeper work. Sorry is best used when repairing from a conflict that has escalated, not as a way to dismiss your partner’s pain about your addiction, affair, or other issue.
When used appropriately, sorry is a great tool. It can prevent conflict from escalating out of control and can reconnect you as part of a repair process. A physical gesture to symbolize healing can be helpful after saying sorry. Reconnect with a hug or kiss, if your partner is ready. Make-up and then kiss (not the other way around).