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July 01, 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.

References & Citations

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.