A question I frequently ask couples in my therapy practice as they tell me of their struggles and conflicts is: "So how did you resolve that?" The answer I get almost 100% of the time is: "Well, we didn't. We don't talk for a while, and then eventually we sort of go back to normal, but no, we never really resolved the issue or did anything to repair the hurt."
What's especially difficult is knowing how. How do you apologize without coming across as insincere or shallow? Better yet, how can you avoid an escalation of an argument in the first place?
Sometimes being a bit more transparent during an argument, rather than digging in your heels, can not only prevent hostility but also the need to apologize later after more damage is done as a result of the argument.
Doctors John and Julie Gottman, couple researchers and therapists, have come up with a Repair Checklist that features many statements that can be really helpful when you are in the middle of an argument to help move you both towards understanding and reconciliation. Here are three of my favorites:
Let me try again.
This one is a course correction before you get yourself into deeper trouble. Many people, myself included, struggle with formal apologies because of the blame and shame attached with them. A course correction that you initiate as you realize that your stance is not effective in convincing your partner takes a lot of the shame out of missing the mark.
I want to be gentler to you right now, but I don't know how.
Anger gets in the way of feeling connected with your partner, and it is really difficult not to resort to being mean when you're upset. It's an easy route to take. Sometimes we are lucky enough to observe ourselves -- we know that what we've just said was unfair and hurtful. We know it goes against our values as a partner, but we don't know what else to do. Disclosing that helplessness to your "opponent" -- who is, of course, really a person you love -- can open up another avenue.
I really blew that one.
Yup, there it is. Sometimes it's that cut and dry. You promised something and didn't do it. You missed it and shouldn't have. Next time your partner says "sorry doesn't cut it," try admitting that you blew it. I have a joke with my husband where one of us will say, somewhat sarcastically, "You were right, and furthermore and more importantly, I was wrong." Now, we only use this particular flippant exchange for very trivial disagreements, but there is some real satisfaction in hearing your partner say, "I was wrong". Often an entire hour-long fight can be simply about the power struggle of admitting fault.
All of the above statements require a lot of maturity. And to be sure, you're taking a risk. You're admitting something about yourself that is unflattering, and you're making yourself vulnerable, and --you may fear -- less lovable. But vulnerability and intimacy are two sides of the same coin. The cooler you play it, the less your partner knows you care, and the less likely they are to want to be close to you.
Disclaimer: In this article I'm assuming you are a typical couple where each side loves and respects the other. If you have a bully partner, this doesn't apply in the same way. Read more in my article: 5 Signs Your Boyfriend Is Abusive.