Married couples inevitably face conflict. If you believe you haven’t faced conflict in your marriage, you may not be seeing the truth. In fact, when you avoid conflict, you also avoid the opportunity to strengthen your marriage. Conflict is normal and natural. How we respond to it, however, can make or break a relationship.
Take a moment and consider the pattern you enter when there is conflict. We all have default patterns. We usually inherit them from our parents until we become more intentional about our responses. These responses are rooted in beliefs and values, but also in the nervous system which means they can be somewhat automatic as your body tries to keep you safe.
The better you see and accept your own patterns, the better you will be at stopping the automatic reaction and responding intentionally with the person you love.
Now, consider your usual reactions when you are feeling threatened or uncomfortable. Do you run, blame, deny, avoid, threaten, minimize, dwell, appease, distract, supplicate, victimize? As you consider this, neither judge nor justify your behavioral patterns.
Judging yourself will make you bitter and that will spill into your marriage. Justifying your behavior will make you inflexible and that, too, will impact your marriage. Simply be honest with yourself. Now, consider your partner’s patterns. When you have a conflict, what is their typical reaction? Notice without judging or justifying.
Lastly, consider how your two reaction patterns interact.
When facing conflict in marriage, the art of apology can lend itself to warm, even joyous, reconciliation. It does involve swallowing your pride and also being vulnerable with your true feelings. If you are not open to being vulnerable, your marriage will suffer.
If you value a sense of righteousness over a sense of togetherness, your marriage will suffer. Notice what an appeal for vulnerability and humility brings up in you.
Marital conflicts should have the goal of strengthening your marriage. If you and your partner frequently approach disagreements as adversaries, I encourage you to shift your perspective and approach them as team members sharing the same goal: to enrich your healthy connection.
Tips for effective apology in relationships
If your partner has been brave enough to tell you they feel hurt by something you did, taking sincere responsibility will ease and support the reconciliation. This act of taking responsibility by apologizing in a relationship does not mean you are a bad person, that your partner has more power than you, that you have no backbone, or that you meant to cause any harm. However, it will create healing between you.
Too often couples erupt an argument because there is a refusal to apologize or a distorted view of what a proper apology is. A good apology is a way of saying, “I hear you; I respect you, and I care about you.” Isn’t that lovely?
Check out these effective listening tips for a healthy relationship:
To convey that message, couples need to own their actions and the situation. Do not meet an honest expression of hurt with blame, denial, defensiveness or minimization. Might yourpartner be too sensitive?
Perhaps. Could he be projecting onto you? Maybe. However, even ifthese things are true, responding with defensiveness, anger, aggression, or avoidance willnever be helpful.
Examples of perfect apology
I must note here that your partner will not always express their hurt in a healthy way. When that happens, it will be even more challenging for you to avoid reverting to the old patterned response. If your partner assaults you with their feelings, it is good to remain compassionate but also express your healthy boundaries. See some examples below.
Jane: I felt hurt when you didn’t call to tell me you would be late.
Bob Ineffective: Oh, get over it! You don’t tell me every detail of your life. You have some nerve.
Bob Effective: I’m sorry, hunny. I understand you might have been worried or felt overlooked. My phone battery just died, and I didn’t know what to do. I really apologize.
Jane stated her feelings with assertiveness and vulnerability. In his first response, Bob created a larger chasm between them with his defensiveness. In the second response, Bob took responsibility for what happened. See another example below.
Eric: Hey sweetie. We made a date for Friday but it looks like you booked a haircut. I’m kind of
hurt. I wanted to spend time with you.
Louisa Ineffective: I’m sorry you feel that way. I need to take care of myself: it’s not a big deal.
Louisa Effective: I’m sorry, babe. I forgot about our date. I love spending time with you and it is
so important to me. I will move my hair appointment. Thanks for catching that.
In the example below, Jennifer expresses her hurt ineffectively. This is a very real occurrence in relationship conflict. While apologizing is one art, expressing sadness, hurt, or anger is another. When your partner expresses themselves ineffectively, remember that you can be committed to your own effective, assertive responses.
Jennifer: Why can’t you ever do anything right? All I asked was for you to wash the dishes, and they look like garbage!
Scott Ineffective: Really? You look like garbage, and you act like garbage. I’m sick of you!
Scott Effective: That was a very mean thing to say. I was happy to help you with the dishes, and I really did my best. I really want to hear your ideas and how you feel, but I need you to be nice to me so we can work together.
See how the different responses significantly impact the alliance, trust, mood, and intimacy of the relationship? Apologies should validate and create closeness. For this to happen, partners need to swallow their pride and also be honest and vulnerable. Be patient with yourself and remember the goal of being on the same team as your spouse. Skip the blame and defensiveness to find the sweetness of asincere apology.
The art of apology begins with a sincere and genuine ‘I am sorry.’ It is about the full acknowledgment of offense and reparations for the damage. With a sincere and meaningful apology, a person can go a long way in building and maintaining relationships.
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.
I believe that to succeed, all parties need to be willing to make some changes, and to assume the best in their partner(s). I do not believe that there is a "right" or "wrong" person. Instead, I believe all parties in a relationship are part ofa team, and that everyone has room for improvement.I am skilled at helping clients learn effective communication, realize how their past impacts their current relationship, andlearn approaches to improve sexual intimacy.
(Joy Ruben is also listed in Best Marriage Therapists in Lenox)