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Home | Human Flourishing | Relationships | Speaking Our Mind
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | February 2017 (edited December 16, 2021)
A popular blogger advised readers to apologize, even when they are not wrong—for the sake of the relationship. There is a need to compromise, push aside the ego and move forward, however, empty apologies fail to accomplish the task. Open communication is not begrudgingly apologizing and silently stewing in self-righteousness.
Self-interest interferes with bonding, creating sourness over stupid differences. We firmly plant our feet and refuse to budge—to the detriment of the relationship. The relationship strengthens by working through differences. And working through differences requires open communication.
At the troubling times of conflict, relationships have opportunity for growth. These are the passing moments when we establish safety, knowing we can disagree and still be loved and accepted. However, self-righteously holding the high ground of being right and smugly apologizing (although we know they are wrong) is not compromise. The rigidness of rules such as these is counter-productive to relationship growth. Intimacy requires more.
"Practicing open communication in marriage often addresses major issues verbally, thereby, averting nasty situations between couples."
Rachael Pace | Marriage.com
When We Should Apologize
When a partner is wrong, they are wrong. Submissively bowing our head, apologizing for confronting their highness and burying hurt—for the sake of the relationship—displays the brokenness of that relationship.
These relationships have no stability, equality or intimacy. These relationships function by concealing the secrets of the heart to maintain peace in the present. The hidden resentments quietly destroy connection more than honest disagreements. Emotional intimacy is born through open communication.
We should, however, apologize if during a disagreement we act in non-loving way. Often disagreements are more about differences in opinion, values, and priorities rather than right or wrong.
"A healthy connection with someone doesn’t come from withholding and remembering a string of little lies. It comes from being transparent with them."
Viewing disagreements from the simplicity of right and wrong forces confrontation; we subjectively decide which is right and which is wrong. Most disagreements fair better when viewed through complexity—neither position is inherently right or wrong. We just prefer one path as opposed to the other. Once separated from the dogmatic this-is the-way-it-has-to-be stance, we can work towards a more congenial compromise—not needing an apology. But still taking advantage of making up.
We may find, after emotions settle, the ego was creating the disagreement and not differing opinions—especially when there is a history of bitter disagreements. An apology, again, is appropriate, “I’m sorry. I was wrong.” During the heat of battle, swept away in emotions, we miss our stumblings, contributing to the conflict. Usually we are partially culpable and acknowledging (first to self and then to partner) our errors, strengthens the relationship.
We feel better to be innocent rather than a co-conspirator—at least in the moment. Propping our innocence up though blame, accentuating the partners role and minimizing our contributions.
By accepting the role of the victim, we relieve personal responsibility, placing the blame solely on the partner; furthering self-righteousness, we follow the silent blame with an insincere apology—even though we still hold them responsible. Nothing’s been resolved. Over time, this pattern of unresolved differences spoils connections. No intimacy is experienced when the raunchy smell of unresolved pasts keeps penetrating the present.
We blame, silently stew, and then apologize, hoping the partner will discover the underlying issues we fail to honestly discuss. We experience hurt from our partner’s failure to resolve these unspoken issues; unsaid and lingering the hurts accumulate; and we become resentful. Pain doesn’t sit and stew without spoiling interactions. The hurts spill over.
We explain the hurt by labeling the cause—our partner is flawed—selfishness, lazy, and good for nothing. The harsh judgment provides the horrible explanation, "we are married to a bad person." Once that label is affixed, the relationship spirals towards its painful conclusion.
The insincere apology, instead of improving the relationship, enhances this destructive self-righteous cycle, closing the mind to alternate possibilities, and magnifying hidden resentments. The smugness of a fake apology, instead of pleasing, often is received as a passive-aggressive attack, spurring another defensive retaliation. Courageously facing the differences in the open is preferred.
Emotional Signals that Something is Wrong
When we hurt, the pain signals something is wrong. The baggage we carry into a relationship strongly influences how, when and the strength of emotional alarms. Our partner may have legitimately broken loyalty and the hurt is justified. Other times, our subjective interpretations poke our sensitivities. Automatic reaction to the pain may be misguided.
We must search for greater understanding—our partner’s feelings, our sensitivities, and human nature. In these pivotal moments, our response develops or destroys trust. By suppressing our first inclination to defend and then explore the deeper and complex contributors, including our partner’s hurts, we build trust. These are the tender moments that create safety, love grows, and the sincerity of concern is conveyed.
Healthy relationships have room for differences without apologies. Many of the differences continue over the years, never fully resolved. We will collide in opinions, desired courses of action and silly mishaps of two people living and loving together; the difference will continue to emerge and must be treated with kindness. Learning to live with those differences becomes the hallmark of a healthy long relationship.