The point of an argument isn’t to be right, it’s to be understood. Sometimes when people argue in my office I like to interrupt and ask, “Who is winning?” This takes them off guard, before one of them or both say no one. Fighting and arguing can drive people apart, but not being able to apologize in a way that connects with your partner can bring about lasting hurt and resentment. A good apology can bring people closer together, and give them a greater understanding of one another. Fights and arguments are opportunities to build a healthier relationship through reconciliation. Make the most of these opportunities by using these steps to improve or start restoring your relationship.
1: Don’t Get Defensive
Nothing escalates an argument more than getting defensive. When you react from a place of defensiveness it can lead to shifting blame (“but you did this!”), playing semantics (“I said most of the time not all the time”), and avoiding responsibility (“it’s not my fault”). It’s hard to understand the other side when you are too busy fortifying your own. Instead, go into the argument trying to understand the other person, not trying to win the argument. If your goal is to win, you won’t, even when you think you have. Remember the argument isn’t about you, and it’s not even about being right, it’s about being understood, and building a healthier relationship with your partner. Getting defensive will get in the way of that. It will also get in the way of step two.
2: Be Empathetic
Empathy is the ability to identify and understand how another person is feeling. When people get defensive it stops them from being able to put themselves in their partner’s shoes. People experience things differently, sure you might not have meant that, or said those exact words, but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is being able to understand how those words or actions impacted the person you care about. Often time’s people will try to convince others that they shouldn’t be hurt, or that they shouldn’t have been mad. Telling someone how they should feel will get you nowhere. It’s import to acknowledge the damage done in that moment in time, not try and justify it or change their mind. Without being able to practice empathy you won’t be able to understand how your words and actions have impacted your partner. Without empathy the argument will continue and it can make you sound cold and callous, which builds resentment over time.
3: Acknowledge How You Made the Other Person Feel
After you are able to use empathy to put yourself in their shoes, it’s good to voice what you believe they are going through. It sounds like you’re feeling or you must be feeling can be useful statements to start with. Bringing this up helps you get to the root of the argument. You aren’t always arguing about dishes, or punctuality; instead, the person you care about might not feel wanted, or that they can’t count on you. So before you start talking about what you think the problem might be, it is important to acknowledge what they are feeling so you can get to the root of the issue. Talking about these feelings out loud shows them you understand what they are going through, and if that’s not the case then it gives them the opportunity to share their feelings with you. That way you have a solid understanding of what your partner is going through so you are able to address it.
4: Apologize For How You Made Them Feel
Once you have acknowledged their feelings out loud it’s important to apologize for how you made them feel. Sometimes apologizing for how you made them feel is more important than apologizing for what you did. Saying “I’m sorry my actions have made you feel like you don’t have a partner, and that you can’t count on me.” Is a lot more powerful than “I’m sorry I forgot to do the dishes again.” It’s easy to apologize for what you did. I’m sorry for saying this, or doing that, but it can also sound insincere because it misses the point. In relationships, feeling like you’re not understood, or that the other person doesn’t care about or recognize your feelings can lead to hurt, distrust, and resentment. Avoid all of that and build a stronger relationship by acknowledging and apologizing for how your actions or words made the other person feel.
5: Take Responsibility For What You Did
After apologizing for how you made the other person feel it’s important to take responsibility for what you did. Taking responsibility for what you did shows that you acknowledge the actions you took that made the other person feel that way. It’s hard to change when you don’t acknowledge what it is you need to work on. Apologizing for how you made the other person feel can bring you closer together and make you feel more connected, but if you don’t acknowledge what it is you are going to do differently your words can feel shallow. Saying “I’m sorry for not taking care of the dishes” is not as powerful as saying “I’m sorry I made you feel like you could not count on me. I know how my actions have impacted you and I’m going to work harder at making sure I do the things I say I’m going to.” Taking responsibility for your actions rebuilds trust and sets a new standard for what you are going to do in order to improve and strengthen the relationship.
6: No Buts
Sorry Sir Mix-A-Lot, but nothing kills an apology faster than attaching a big but to it. The goal of apologizing is to repair the damage you did to the relationship. Don’t ruin an apology by making an excuse (“but it wouldn’t have happened if”), not owning your mistake (“but it’s not my fault”), or making your apology conditional (“but you need to”). If you’re apologizing to get your partner to apologize too than you are apologizing for the wrong reason. It takes two to tango, but remember the goal of apologizing is to restore and rebuild what may have been lost or damaged from what happened. Your partner more than likely played a part, but the most important thing you can do is focus on improving what you can, and trusting and giving your partner the benefit of the doubt that they will do the same.
Arguments are opportunities to build a healthier relationship, and if you feel like your arguments are getting in the way of the growth of your relationship it might be beneficial to seek professional help. All of the steps listed above are easier said than done, and if you are struggling to make changes then I would encourage you to reach out to a therapist who can help you and your partner overcome the obstacles that are getting in the way of creating a healthier relationship.