Beyond an Apology l July 2016

“I’m sorry” doesn’t always end couple conflict in a satisfying way. Often something more is needed, an expression in words or actions that speaks to and “corrects” the underlying experience of one or both partners.

Two kinds of underlying experience characterize much couple conflicti: The first is when we perceive threat from a partner — when power or authority is flaunted in a way designed to stifle us, to demonstrate how wrong we are, to scold and belittle us. This triggers our sense of intimidation and threat.

The second underlying experience is when we perceive neglect — when a partner’s actions or words send a message of indifference, when the implication is “you don’t matter” or “I don’t have time for this” or “you’re making a big deal out of nothing.”

Depending on whether we perceive threat or neglect, what leads to a satisfying resolution may differ. When we perceive threat, we want our partner to relinquish power and end an adversarial posture. Instead of a tone of intimidation behind his or her words, we want to feel a sense of equality restored, of power shared. Here are some ways it can be done:

  • Admitting fault and showing vulnerability with words like, “I know I was wrong” or “that was insensitive of me” or “I was in a hurry and should have been more careful.”
  • Showing personal respect with words like, “I shouldn’t have treated you that way” or “you deserve better from me.”
  • Compromising (rather than striving to “win” or dominate) with words like “you’ve raised some good points” or “can we find a way so that both of us get something we want?”

When we perceive neglect during conflict, we want our partner to demonstrate a true investment in the relationship — and in us. Here are some ways it can be done:

  • Offering gestures of affection, like an embrace or extending a hand.
  • Demonstrating an investment in the relationship, with words like “I’m glad you raised this matter” or “it’s good that we talked.”
  • Showing an interest in more — not less — communication, with words like “is there more you want to say?” or “are you satisfied with the response I’ve given you?”

The right words and actions can often exceed — without necessarily precluding — the value of an apology in effectively resolving conflict.

iSanford, K., & *Wolfe, K. L. (2013). What married couples want from each other during conflicts: An investigation of underlying concerns. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 32, 674-699.


Observe Yourself l May/June 2016

“My friend Caroline is driving me crazy,” your partner reports, exasperated. “She keeps pushing me to go shopping again, but I don’t have her endless energy for that.” Quickly, you’re poised to suggest a way she can beg off on her friend’s invitation. But before the words come out of your mouth, you notice you’re about to give advice. You notice that familiar impulse to help and solve and suggest … and you remember her telling you that she doesn’t want advice all the time — she wants simple listening. Because you noticed your impulse, you’re able to slow down and take another path. You won’t slip into being Mr. Fixit.

“I don’t want to visit your parents this summer,” your partner announces. “We saw them twice already this year, and you know how difficult your mother can be.” You’re ready to point out that the two of you visit his parents a lot more often than your parents. But before you open your mouth, you notice your body tightening, and the feeling of irritation … familiar signs of defensiveness. Because you noticed all that, you slow down and say only “tell me more,” deferring comments until later. You’ve learned that conversations rarely go well when you become defensive.

Noticing what’s stirring within us — observing ourselves before we open our mouths — allows us to sidestep our automatic and quick reactions that can get us into trouble. Noticing is the logical brain at work, and the best way to keep the emotional brain from hijacking the moment (see Two Brains, April/May 2014).

One of the greatest gifts we can give our partner — and ourselves — is being fully present in conversations. Being fully present requires that we prevent our own thoughts and feelings from getting in the way of our best listening (see How to “Get It,” April 2015). It begins by noticing our thoughts and feelings as they stir within us (see The Mind’s Traffic, Sept/Oct 2015). Noticing gives us the power to handle our quick reactions wisely: to think about where those reactions are coming from, and to set them aside until the proper moment, at least — if we find ourselves worked up — until we’ve “cooled off.”

Learning to observe ourselves requires practice — lots of it. But when the payoff is less bickering and fewer fights, you’re sure to find the practice well worth the investment.

Marriage and the Heart l February/March 2016

Marriage has earned a reputation for offering health advantages: longer and happier lives, fewer medical challenges. But “it’s not the case that any marriage is better than none.”i Some studies have found better health among divorced or single people as compared to spouses in high conflict/high stress marriages. In fact, unhappy marriages have been associated with high blood pressure, suppressed immune response, obesity, and the leading killer of Americans: heart disease.

Researchers at Michigan State University looked at data from 1,200 married men and women between 57 and 85 years of age. Relationships in which one spouse regularly criticizes or makes demands were associated with a greater risk of heart disease in the other spouse. The effect was stronger for older couples, and the health risk greater for the female rather than male partner.ii

These 2014 data affirm an earlier study in which women reporting moderate to severe marital strain and with a history of cardiac trouble were found to be 2.9 times more likely to subsequently need heart surgery, suffer heart attacks, or die of heart disease when compared to women with similar cardiac histories but in low-stress marriages.iii

How to understand the connection between hearth health and marital strain? Perhaps repeated exposure to stress hormones like cortisol (which increases blood pressure) and adrenaline (which increases heart rate and blood pressure) gradually undermine heart function. With the body more vulnerable as we age — we’re frailer and immune function is less robust — marital stress may stimulate more intense cardiovascular responses. And because women tend to internalize negative feelings more than men — carrying around the painful emotions triggered by moments of marital discord — their hearts may pay a greater price for the toll that accumulates over time.

It makes sense then, from a heart-healthy perspective, for all couples — younger as well as older — to do what they can to learn the skills that contribute to marital harmony and effective problem solving … before cardiac problems develop. Maybe communication and conflict-resolution skills are as important as diet and exercise for promoting cardiac wellness. (See Argue Kindly, May 2010; Your Start-up, September 2010; Husbands: Warm It Up, January 2012; Complain Skillfully, September 2012).

If moderate to severe marital strain is a regular feature of your relationship, marriage counseling might be a very effective medicine.

i Umberson, D. et al. “You make me sick: marital quality and health over the life course.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior. 2006 March 47(1):1-16.

ii Liu, H. and L. Waite. “Bad marriage, broken heart? Age and gender differences in the link between marital quality and cardiovascular risks among older adults.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior. 2014 December 55: 403-423,doi:10.1177/0022146514556893