Mastering the art of apology can make a huge difference in your marriage
So you’ve had a fight. Okay, that’s common in young couples — and also in older ones. Now, go make up. Yes, go do it right away.
“But he hurt my feelings! I need a long time to recover before I’ll speak to him again (if ever)!”
You’re just wasting your life in the cold cellar. Go make up right now.
“But it was her fault so why should I make up?!”
Go make up right now anyway. Here’s why:
The most powerful predictor of a successful marriage is the couple’s skill at “repair.” Virtually all couples have disputes, painful interactions, breakdowns in communication, and other hurtful episodes. Marriage consists of two flawed human beings, so there’s no other way it can go. If friction of any sort in a marriage is a sign that it should be dissolved, no child would ever grow up in an intact family. Like all other pain points in one’s life, marriage problems are a signal that something needs to change. Change it and move on. Couples who are skilled at repair do just that.
Here are common things people need to change:
- Speak with greater kindness, sensitivity and/or respect.
- Let things pass without criticism.
- Acknowledge wrongdoing, apologize, and make amends.
- Give more time, attention, positive feedback, and other forms of nurturing.
- Step up to the plate by accepting responsibilities for the care of home and family, including finances, housework, and childcare.
- Maintain and improve personal attractiveness.
- Improve parenting dynamics.
- Negotiate issues concerning extended family.
Of course there are plenty of other common problems couples have, which is why the ability to make regular relationship repairs is essential. Couples who aren’t good at this will experience much suffering.
The initial suffering occurs from a specific incident of flawed behavior. For example, a wife asks an innocent question and her husband snaps back an irritated response. If the couple initiates an immediate repair, the suffering will be limited to the few minutes of pain caused by the harsh response.
However, if the wife retorts sharply or withdraws, both partners will experience prolonged suffering. When this pattern is well-established, the built-up pain causes each new incident to be exponentially hurtful. Spouses often react badly to negative reactions, escalating the wounding. Children who watch these behaviors suffer from the cold their parents create in the home and learn bad marital habits.
Making an immediate repair prevents the buildup of marital distress, allowing the relationship to remain strong and vibrant. Instead of feeling drained and bitter, husband and wife stay optimistic, fresh, and committed to each other. Here are some steps skilled couples take to achieve fast and easy repairs:
- Do the repair immediately, or, when emotions are too strong, take up to ten minutes to calm down and then initiate the repair. Example, “My question obviously bothered you. I’m sorry. Was there something wrong with the way I asked it?”
- Either partner can initiate the repair and the other partner immediately accepts the overture and readily engages in the process. Example: “No. I’m sorry. It felt like you’d already decided what you were going to do so I snapped. That wasn’t fair.”
- Each partner acknowledges the feelings of the other person. Example: He: “I snapped at you and that must have hurt.”
Her: “I’m sorry. I guess I often do know what I want to do but I ask your opinion anyway. I can see how that’s frustrating and unfair .”
- Each accepts the other’s apology immediately. Example: Him: “I appreciate you trying to include me. Maybe you can just tell me what you’re thinking of doing and ask how I feel about it instead of asking for my opinion when you don’t actually want it .”
Her: “Thank you for acknowledging the hurt caused.”
- Each promises to address the behavior going forward. Example: Him: “When I’m feeling frustrated, I’ll tell you what’s going on with me instead of getting irritable.”
Her: “It’s a great idea for me to tell you what choice I’m leaning toward when discussing a dilemma.”
The main quality required for quick repair is willingness. If you want to prolong your agony (and the agony of your family), you can do the slow repair or the no repair. But if you want to quickly put the relationship back on track, you can — and doing so becomes easier and easier over time.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 713)
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