You’ve done everything you can to resolve the problem. Nothing is working. The louder you get, the less it seems your spouse hears you. What’s even more frustrating is that they keep putting the blame on you! Or worse, rehashing past faults and failures. You’ve reached a stalemate. You’re stuck, overwhelmed, and you don’t know what else to do.
If you’re like most people, you might give up trying. You leave the issue alone and hope you feel better the next day. As usual your more intense feelings will subside in time, and it becomes all too easy to ignore the issue in the chance it will go away on its own. Or maybe you’re hoping it wasn’t that big of a deal after all.
The problem with this is that it usually does not go away. The underlying problem causing the conflict remains and lies dormant until something triggers it again.
So how can you turn this breakdown into a breakthrough? The answer is surprisingly simple. The path to reaching a breakthrough starts with…accepting responsibility.
Accept responsibility for your part
Notice the emphasis on your part. This does not mean taking all the blame or apologizing for things you didn’t do. Nor does it mean you fully agree with your partner. It’s simply owning your contribution to the problem at hand, however big or small that contribution might be.
It’s helpful to remember that if you really want to reach a breakthrough in your conflict, you will need to focus your efforts on being effective rather than being right. In other words, don’t forget your ultimate goal– working through the conflict and having a successful marriage. A common question that marriage counselors ask is, “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be married?”
Accepting responsibility has less to do with who’s right or wrong, and more to do with being effective in the relationship. When you choose to accept responsibility for your part, you are ultimately saying “I’m with you, not against you. Let’s figure this out together.” It shows that you are willing to find points of agreement, so you can approach your conflict together, as a team.
What to do
Here are 4 steps to accepting the responsibility that will help you turn your breakdown into a breakthrough.
1. Acknowledge the grain of truth
Even if you disagree with an argument, complaint, or criticism aimed at you, there is usually at least a grain of truth in what is being said. Let’s use the example from my last article, “A Small Shift in Communication Can Make a Big Difference in Your Relationship.”
“How come you never empty the dishwasher?! You are always leaving it for me to empty, and you never consider how tired I might be at the end of the day.”
You may disagree that you never empty the dishwasher and that you always leave it for your spouse to empty. But it’s probably true that at least on occasion you don’t think that much about how tired your spouse is at the end of the day. Acknowledging the grain of truth would look like this.
“You are right. I haven’t always realized how tired you are at the end of the day.”
By doing this, you are validating your partner’s point of view and disarming the argument.
2. Affirm your intention
It’s important to state your intention so your partner can start to understand your point of view and confirm that you were not intentionally trying to cause any harm.
For example, “I’m tired too at the end of the day, and sometimes I’m so focused on relaxing that I don’t think about what all needs to be done around the house. I never meant for you to feel like you have to do it all.”
Simply say, “I’m sorry.” That’s it! Contrary to popular belief, apologizing is a sign of strength, not weakness. Never underestimate the powerful effects an apology can have on softening the heart and disarming a conflict.
4. Act authentically
HOW you communicate taking responsibility makes a huge difference. It’s important to be genuine when use this skill. Your spouse will know if you are insincere or just going through the motions. If you catch yourself feeling too caught up in negative emotions to the point where you cannot be authentic at the moment, then take a break. Allow yourself time to calm down and give sincere thought to what your part is in the problem and what you can honestly apologize for.
Why this matters
This is why this matters-
1. Directs movement to a mutual solution
When you validate your spouse by identifying the grain of truth in what they are saying you are providing an opportunity for safe discussion. When people feel safe to express their thoughts and feelings, they also feel safe to listen. This leads to an increased willingness to give and take when necessary and a common goal of overcoming the conflict together. The Gottman Institute suggests, “By identifying and empathizing with your partner’s point of view, you are more likely to find a solution that honors both partners. That’s the secret.”
2. Defends against divorce
One of the most common characteristics of marriages that lead to divorce is defensiveness. The opposite of defensiveness is the ability to accept responsibility. In other words, accepting responsibility is the antidote to defensiveness.
When you can get in the habit of accepting responsibility for your part in your marital problems, not only will you jump start progress toward overcoming your conflict, but you will be actively protecting yourself against divorce.