By Jamie C. Williamson, PhD
I’ve said it a thousand times, but people still don’t believe me.
Conflict can actually be good for your relationship.
Conflict can lead to greater understanding. Conflict can clarify similarities, differences, and preferences. Conflict can help couples learn how to deal with future conflict. And, perhaps most importantly, conflict can make it clear where efforts to communicate can and should be strengthened.
Surprisingly, conflict can be good for your relationship even if you occasionally behave badly (but not abusively) during the conflict….. as long as you master the art of the true apology.
Sure, using a conflict style that would be considered “constructive” creates a more pleasant conflict aftermath. Constructive styles that involve a concern for your partner and your relationship include tactics like collaboration or compromise, which often help resolve conflict and set the stage for forgiveness.
Likewise, using a conflict style that would be considered “destructive” creates a less pleasant conflict aftermath. Destructive styles that show little concern for your partner or your relationship include tactics like competing or avoidance, which rarely lead to peaceful resolution or forgiveness.
Your conflict style influences the conflict aftermath, for sure. But, what can make an even bigger difference is an effective apology.
What constitutes an effective apology?
First and foremost, avoid the “pseudo-apology” that goes something like this: “I’m sorry you can’t take a joke” or “I’m sorry you are so upset” or “I’m sorry you just don’t understand”.
These statements are NOT apologies, they are critical statements that imply that your partner is overly sensitive rather than that you made a mistake. Pseudo-apologies lead to more conflict, and, if used often enough, severely deteriorate the quality of a relationship.
In contrast, offer a “true apology”.
The five key attributes of a true apology include:
- Be earnest and sincere, and not rushed.
- Acknowledge specifically what you did wrong and state that you take responsibility.
- Explain what happened, but do not offer excuses. An excuse negates the apology.
- Offer to make amends or promise to change.
- Ask for forgiveness.
Here’s an example: Husband Stays Out Late with Co-Workers Without Calling Wife
Husband’s Pseudo apology: Fine. I’ll call home to “mommy” next time. I’m sorry you don’t understand how important it is for me to socialize with my co-workers.
Husband’s True apology: I am so sorry that I stayed out so late without calling to let you know I was ok and what was going on. I know you were worried about me and didn’t want to embarrass me by calling me when I was with my work friends. I didn’t want leave the group to call home, but I could have easily texted you. And, I should have done that. I promise I won’t let it happen again. Please forgive me.
It isn’t hard to see the difference that a true apology would make in shaping the aftermath of this common couple conflict.
Try it yourself. You’ll be amazed how disarming a true apology can be. But, also remember, there is an art to the true apology. Knowing when to deliver a true apology is almost as important as knowing how to do it.
Be careful not to overdo it. Apologizing too often for insignificant infractions or things you are not responsible for diminishes the impact when you make a true apology. However, a true apology that is given freely and sincerely, when needed, will turn the aftermath of conflict into an afterglow of relational healing.
If your relationship could benefit from the use of true apologies, share this post with your partner, promise to help each other practice apologizing, and you will be surprised how often you can “work it out”.
Let me know if I can help. You’ll find me at Amity Mediation Workshop, LLC