Our socialization teaches us that “I love you” is the most important phrase we should tell a partner. From our parents and caregivers to pop culture, we are led to believe those words are the cure-all in relationships. While those words are certainly important and useful in conveying affection or reassuring our commitment, they are not sufficient in mending or maintaining the relationship.
Here are three phrases that are equally important for your partner to hear:
We all fall short of perfection and inevitably do or say something that makes a partner feel hurt, angry, or frustrated. While imperfection is expected, it is important we acknowledge our mistakes in a sincere way that lets our partner know we acknowledge our errors and how it may have affected them.
Saying “I’m sorry” is not just about admitting fault; it is an attempt to repair the damage. We say “I’m sorry” to let a partner know we do not wish to continue in anger. This is called a “repair attempt.” Repair attempts are of paramount importance not only in healing our relationships in the moment, but safeguarding them from resentment and negativity that can become like a cancer to the relationship.
Apologizing does not mean you have to accept your partner’s experience of reality as your own; rather, it acknowledges how your actions impacted them. As a couples therapist, I often see an attack-defend pattern when one partner interprets their counterpart’s actions as hurtful and the second partner does not agree with the injured partner’s experience. Conflict inevitably ensues because the couple becomes tangled in a pattern of one trying to convince the other to apologize while the other defends their intentions. The defending partner may genuinely feel their intentions were pure and that they are not responsible for their partner’s interpretations.
Clarifying intentions is important in situations in which one partner feels an apology is merited and the other does not, but typically falls flat unless the experience of both partners is acknowledged and validated first.
Fighting the battle of who is right or wrong—the offender or the injured—in these instances rarely results in resolving the issue. What is helpful for many couples is a reframing of the apology in which the hurt partner can clearly articulate their experience and feelings in a non-blaming manner, while the offending partner can acknowledge and validate their partner’s experience and apologize for the way they made their partner feel, not for what they did. An important distinction to make here is the “defending” partner must apologize for how they made their partner feel (i.e., “I’m sorry I made you feel _____.”), regardless of intentions, rather than putting the blame back on their partner by saying “I’m sorry you felt that way.”
After an apology is made, the “defending” partner can offer to clarify what their intentions were so that their experience can receive acknowledgment as well. Clarifying intentions is important in situations in which one partner feels an apology is merited and the other does not, but typically falls flat unless the experience of both partners is acknowledged and validated first.
“I forgive you.”
As important as it is to make repair attempts, it is just as important to be receptive to such an attempt. Rejecting your partner’s repair attempt can be just as detrimental as not making a repair attempt at all. When a partner offers a sincere “I’m sorry,” your ability to accept this and say “I forgive you” can be indicative of how willing your partner will be to offer apologies in the future. Offering forgiveness is an excellent way of reinforcing the idea apologies are necessary and helpful to the relationship.
Forgiveness, though, is not something that is necessarily easily given. When trust has been significantly damaged, forgiveness takes time. While forgiveness is necessary to let go of past hurts and to protect against harboring resentment, it may take time depending on the injury—so show yourself and your partner patience during the process.
“I’m proud of you.”
This is about far more than simply acknowledging your partner’s accomplishments (which is certainly important). This is about conveying the message you have a deep respect and admiration for your partner. Feeling that your partner respects and admires you is incredibly important in creating (and maintaining) a deep sense of intimacy and emotional connection. Expressing a deep sense of admiration and fondness for your partner is one of the most effective ways to protect against damaging patterns when in conflict.
People who struggle with escalating conflicts often use words of contempt when they feel slighted by their partner. Contempt can ruin a relationship. The antidote is to create an atmosphere of fondness and admiration. If you aren’t sure how to begin, consider reaching out to a qualified relationship counselor.
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