How to Apologize Effectively

As couples counselors, apologizing is a topic that we are highly familiar with. Apologizing is a crucial communication tool in healthy relationships. We often work with couples on how to apologize effectively. We’ve all been on the receiving end of a half-hearted apology that just doesn’t feel genuine. It takes a genuine apology to help us move forward in our relationships.

We recently listened to the Freakonomics podcast episode, “How to Optimize Your Apology” and were excited to hear about the research that has been done surrounding effective apologies. Cultural sociologist, Karen Cerulo, partnered with fellow sociologist, Janet Ruane, to study the effectiveness of an apology. They looked at the format and content of the apology to determine which apologies are most effective. Here’s what they found is the most successful apologies:

  1. Pay special attention to how you start and end your apology. What you say first and last in an apology is what people remember. The first thing you say is a “primer.” Show remorse at the very start of the conversation and intentionally end with how sorry you are.
  2. Avoid talking about yourself. The most successful apology focuses on the person that was hurt, not on the apologizer. Steer clear of talking about yourself or justifying your actions. The research shows that why you did it is less important than your regret or remorse. People don’t want context, they want to know you are sorry.
  3. Apologize for what you did. Cerulo points to many apologies where people say sorry for a misunderstanding. This does not show ownership of a mistake. Apologize for what you did, not what someone else thought. Highlight what you did to offend someone. (Read: “I’m sorry you thought I was being rude.” Compared to: “I’m sorry that I was rude to you.”)
  4. Apologize sooner rather than later. You should make an apology close to when the offense occurs. We know that waiting to apologize tends to build frustration in the hurt partner. Owning up to your mistake earlier rather than later allows for repair attempts to begin.
  5. If possible, commit to doing better*. Expressing a desire to do better next time shows true remorse. If you are unsure of how to do so, ask. Start with, “How can I do better next time?” This shows that not only are you remorseful, but you also want to grow and learn from the mistake.

*If you offer a solution or make a promise to do better, you must follow through. If you do not follow through, your apology becomes empty words and is ultimately ineffective.

As a general rule, exhibiting authentic remorse is the most important part of an apology. Let your partner know that you are sorry and you mean it. We are all going to mess up in our relationships- its par for the course. If conflict is inevitable, then so are apologies. Remember: be quick to apologize, keep the focus on who you’ve hurt, and be intentional about sharing your remorse.

If you or you and your partner would like to work on apologizing and other communication skills, please schedule with one of our counselors below:

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Written by Taylor Walker, Ed.S.

Keeping Your Side of the Fence Clean

We can all think of a nosy neighbor (or at least one on TV) that is constantly “looking over the fence” to check out what the other neighbors are doing. Usually that includes pointing out what the other neighbors are doing wrong. That nosy neighbor is so busy paying attention to what everyone else is doing wrong that she forgets to take a look at what’s happening on her side of the fence.

 

Couples therapists know this situation all too well. There’s no physical fence, but it happens often when couples come in for therapy and say something like, “I need you to fix him.” Like the nosy neighbor, partners can usually list off a bunch of problems about the other partner. “He never listens to me. She doesn’t help me with anything. He doesn’t communicate.” The list goes on.

 

We are so quick to “look over the fence” and make note of all the things our partner is doing wrong. It’s definitely a lot easier that way! But, where do you fit in?

 

It brings this quote to mind: “You can’t control others, but you can control you respond.” If we can take a look within, we have more control of enhancing the relationship.

 

Think: What could I being doing differently? How can I make changes to better the relationship? What is my role in the distress?

 

Oftentimes when we take the time and energy to better ourselves within a relationship, our partners will take notice. Think of it as a ripple effect. We don’t have control over another person, but we do have control over ourselves. So scan your side of the fence and do some clean up. Odds are that your partner will notice and might be motivated to clean up their side too!

If you could use some help cleaning up your side of the fence, reach out to one of our counselors. We would love to help!

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Written by Taylor Walker, Ed.S.

How to Manage Criticism

Ugh, criticism! We’ve all been on the receiving end of criticism and we know it usually doesn’t feel great.

Criticism is one of Dr. John Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: behaviors that occur between partners which research shows can be predictors of divorce. Gottman defines criticism as a character attack, which implies there is something globally wrong with someone. It is not just a complaint, but rather aims at who your partner is at their core.  As you can imagine, this often leads to defensiveness. While criticism can be a predictor of divorce, how criticism is managed determines the success or failure of the relationship.

Recognize that criticism and feedback are different. Expressing a complaint focuses on you and how you feel about something, while criticism places blame on your partner.  We’re all human and we are bound to experience criticism in our relationship at some point. It will happen, but it is important to make sure it does not become a pattern. Here are a few ways to express yourself effectively, without feeding into the blame game:

  1. Use a gentle start-up: Another tried-and-true Gottman method. This skill communicates respect and places focus on your feelings. You can use “I” statements rather than “you” statements to avoid blame. “You always ________ or You never ________, “ places blame and creates defensiveness off the bat. Focus on stating what you need rather than blaming your partner for what you are not receiving to more effectively be heard and get your needs met.
  • “You” statement: “You never help with the dishes. You are so selfish!”
  • “I” statement: “I know I was grouchy tonight. I’m feeling overwhelmed with doing all of the dishes. Could you help me tomorrow?”

2. Focus on how to improve: Sometimes we need to give feedback to make changes. Use specific behavior, not character traits to suggest improvements. Describe what you’re seeing. This will help you be specific about what you would like to change in the future.

3. Express appreciation: Soften your feedback by also showing some appreciation. Don’t be afraid to point out a positive when giving feedback. Even when you’re upset or in conflict, you still love your partner! Showing that helps create warmth in the midst of difficult conversations and makes requests feel less combative.

Great job if you’re incorporating some of these tips already! Be intentional and always communicate respect. Conflict is never easy, but working on how you communicate will make it occur less over time.

If you or you and your partner would like some help managing conflict or criticism, please book with one of our expert couples counselors. 

Written by Taylor Walker, Ed.S.

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4 Ways to Practice Gratitude for Your Partner

There are so many things we take for granted every day. This can be especially true in relationships. We tend to get caught up in the day to day and forget to show gratitude for our partner. We probably think about it, but we likely aren’t showing it enough. Researcher Sara Algoe has found that couples that practice gratitude are more likely to have an enduring relationship. Research has shown that gratitude increases satisfaction and attachment leading to greater emotional connection between partners. So we know gratitude is highly beneficial, but how do we put it into practice? Here are some ideas for how to use it in your relationship:

1. Ask questions (& listen)! Sometimes we’re tired at the end of a long day and we don’t really have the energy to ask about our partner’s day. Do it anyways! Ask “How was your day?” and then follow up with more specific questions. “What was the best part of your day today? What was hard about today? What made you laugh today? What was interesting about your day?” More specific questions help us understand our partners better and show that we appreciate them and care.

2. Say thank you. This one sounds really easy. I’m not talking about thanking them for the mundane tasks they do, although that is important too. It’s nice to be thanked for doing the dishes or putting the kids to bed. But you can go further. Thank them for noticing you had a long day and did these things. You’re thanking them for caring and noticing, not just doing the task. This shows gratitude for who they are and how they show up.

3. Give compliments (generously). A compliment feels really nice. There are often many compliments early in a relationship and sometimes they dwindle as the relationship lengthens. A compliment is a very easy way to show your appreciation for your partner AND it’s a confidence booster.

4. Consider your partner’s love language. If you aren’t familiar with love languages, here’s a brief run down. We all prefer to give and receive love in different ways. You might feel appreciated when you’re thanked verbally, but your partner may not care as much about these words of affirmation. Your partner may love a hug after a long day, but you may feel more loved by your partner buying you flowers. Think about how your partner feels loved and use that to show gratitude, in a way that speaks to them. Be thoughtful about what makes your partner feel appreciated and loved.

Gratitude is all about showing appreciation and giving validation. If you start practicing gratitude, odds are your partner will catch on and it will become a natural part of your relationship. Look for opportunities to show gratitude and do it often. We all crave validation. It reminds you that you value your partner and it makes your partner feel values. Win-win. How can you show your partner gratitude today?

This blog post was written by Taylor Walker, Ed.S.

What Kind of Partner Do You Want to Be?

Every relationship is different. Every partner is different. We form our ideas of how a relationship should be and what type of partner we want to be based on the examples around us. Oftentimes this means our parents’ relationship, friend’s relationships, and past relationships (the good and the bad!) influence our role as a partner. Even social media plays a role; #couplegoals is everywhere! We certainly have many influences, but we get to pick and choose what aspects we want to incorporate into our own role as a partner.

With all these influences, how do you figure out what type of partner you want to be? Start by thinking about couples that inspire you. What do you admire about their relationships? Consider your past relationships. What did your partner do that made you feel loved or supported? Reflect on feedback you’ve received from past or current partners about how you made them feel good or loved. Try to think objectively about yourself as a partner. What do you like about yourself as a romantic partner? What areas would you like to work on?

Most of us don’t take much time to consider what type of partner we are or what type of partner we want to be. We tend to be focused on what type of partner we are looking for. Taking a little time to figure out what qualities you bring to the relationship allows you to figure out what type of partner will compliment you best!

It’s easy to get caught up in expectations for your partner, but we have to look at our own role too. After all, there are two halves in every #couplegoal.

This blog post was written by Taylor Walker, Ed.S.

Stonewalling: What It Is and How to Manage

Shut down, closed off, uncommunicative… this is also known as stonewalling. Maybe this describes your behavior, or maybe you’ve seen it in your partner. It’s a term made popular by relationship experts John and Julie Gottman. They coined the term “stonewalling” after identifying a specific negative interaction commonly seen in couples. Essentially, it is a lack of communication, often in a conflict-ridden arena, depicted by one partner withdrawing from an interaction.

Stonewalling is often a sign of emotional distance and disconnect.  Someone has become closed off and emotionally unavailable. As you can imagine, this makes communication frustrating. It’s tough!  It becomes disheartening after making many attempts to communicate with a stonewalling partner. You both may feel defensive and it gets harder to really hear each other.

Stonewalling broadcasts disapproval loud and clear. The stonewalling partner might feel overwhelmed, or perhaps has just checked out. It often looks like “looking away, hardly vocalizing, with concealed facial expressions and a stiff neck.” It’s not just an emotional response, it’s physical too.

There’s no question that stonewalling is negative. However, it doesn’t mean that there is no hope! Awareness and recognition of stonewalling is important. Once you notice that it’s happening, take a breather! Emotions are heightened, someone (or both of you!) is not able to listen, and you need to stop. Thankfully, there are physical signs (turned head, lack of eye contact) that can remind you to take a break.

As a rule of thumb, when you notice your partner’s body language changing and you can tell they are checked out, check in. Check in by asking if there’s a time you could talk about the issue later. Stay calm, keep your voice low, and offer to revisit the concern.  Try to wait at least 20 minutes if possible to allow your bodies to calm down.

If you’re struggling to combat stonewalling, seek help earlier rather than later. Fortunately, couples therapists are quick to identify stonewalling and can help break the cycle and the stress.  Conflict happens, but management is key.

This blog post was written by Taylor Walker, Ed.S.

Loving Someone Who is Depressed

Loving someone with depression can feel overwhelming and frustrating. There may be times when you want your loved one to “just snap out of it!” However, Depression is not a passing bout of sadness, but a clinical mood disorder that is out of the individual’s control.

When you attempt to support a loved one through the depths of depression there can be a lot of questions about what really is helpful. Despite the unfamiliar road to recovery, remember that there are ways for you to play a positive and helpful role in their healing.

Here are 5 suggestions to bring you up to speed on what depression symptoms look like, and how you can support your loved one.

1. Learn about depression. Without understanding this diagnosis, it can be difficult to identify the symptoms of depression. Learn the definition and symptoms of depression. In addition, there are plenty of first hand accounts on the Internet where individuals share their experience with the illness. Familiarize yourself with some of the testimonies in order to better sympathize with your partner.
Find more information on symptoms of depression by clicking here.

2. Offer an ear to listen. You may want to “fix the problem” and cure your loved one of the hurt and emptiness they are experiencing. Offering solutions or plans to get better can sometimes overwhelm and make a person coping with depression feel worse. Just sit. Listen. Make some tea to drink while they describe their experience in a non-judgmental space. Offer supportive statements, but do not attempt to relate to their experience. While you may not be able to share to their feelings, it is helpful to allow them the time to communicate their distressing thoughts and feelings aloud without judgment.

3. Encourage activities, but have appropriate expectations. If today getting out of pajamas into outerwear is difficult enough, maybe save the walk around the block for tomorrow. Small steps are huge victories when a person is feeling hopeless and distraught. Allow your loved one to rest and regroup, just as if they were experiencing physical ailments.

4. Take care of yourself. It can be overwhelming to be a support to someone going through an episode of depression. You may feel irritable, annoyed, fatigued or frustrated. All of these feelings are typical and it is helpful for you to address them. It is important you remember that you are also going through a shift in dynamics and need to engage in self-care.

5. Assist in finding professional help. While having a loved one by your side can make coping with depression more tolerable, it is important that the person with depression follow through with their treatment. You can provide help by driving them to appointments to see a therapist, reminding them to take their medicine, or simply sitting next to them while they navigate next steps. Psychology Today is a great database for finding a therapist that meets your needs.

This post was written by Anna Celander, LPC. Click here to book an appointment with Anna.