Friday, June 15, 2012

This Relationship Corner: I didn't mean it like that

Ever have one of those arguments? It didn't start out like an argument. It was just an ordinary conversation with your significant other. So ordinary that you were really on autopilot, tuning in now and then to check up on it. Suddenly, without really paying attention, something slips out of your mouth that you either didn't mean, or you didn't mean it like that. Had you been paying more attention, you might have caught it and you never would have said it. But you did say it, and now you're in trouble.

There's two ways to go when this happens, when you didn't mean to say something hurtful but the other person got hurt anyway. The first strategy is to stand by your words. After all, you didn't mean it. It's them who has the problem. They should get over it and let it go. Why are they making such a big deal about it anyway? You're just going to wait patiently until they get over it.

Let's call that the wrong choice.

The other option is that you apologize for what you said and promise never to say something like that again. And by apologize, I don't mean that you say "I'm sorry you were offended." No, you give a real apology, full of repentance and regret. You hurt them, albiet unintentionally, and you are sorry you did it.

It doesn't matter if you're technically right. It doesn't matter that you didn't actually say anything out of line. It doesn't matter that no one else reacts that way and you've found the one person who does. Apologize and mean it.

And, you should care that you hurt your partner's feelings. Part of a relationship is having a good sense of empathy towards one another. You no longer exist in your own little bubble, now you have to worry about someone else's thoughts and feelings. If they feel bad, you should care and want to do something. If they feel bad because of something you did, then the first step is to apologize, then find out what it was, and then try not to do it again.

I realize that from your perspective, there's nothing wrong with what you said or did. This is just who you are and how you express yourself. Besides, you didn't mean it like that, and if your partner can't accept it then too bad. But try to see it from their perspective. Try to see it through their eyes and through their history.

We all have our insecurities and hang-ups. Sometimes we hang on to someone's callous remark for years, or we have pain in our past that we've never gotten over. Whatever the case, and this is true of everyone, including you, we all have those raw nerves that are still sensitive to the touch.  What wouldn't bother someone else devastates us.

You could have an issue with your looks, your body type, your singing voice, your hair, your love of Disco, a former relationship that went badly, your parents, your siblings, your religion, your family history, or a thousand other things. When you are in a relationship, you hope that you're with the one person who can understand this about you. You want your relationship to be a safe place, where you can expose your vulnerabilities and find support.

What you don't want is to have that one person you really care about poke you right in that exposed nerve. Instead of being a safe refuge, they use it against you, or seem to. This person, with their careless comments and insensitive jokes is cutting you deeper and deeper and it seems like they don't even care. You thought your heart was safe around them, but this is a betrayal.

This is how your partner feels when you say or do something insensitive that hurts them. No, you didn't mean it, and perhaps they understand that. But that doesn't change the fact that you stuck your finger right into that ball of gangly, exposed nerves, it doesn't mean that they weren't hurt. And it doesn't make their memories, their pain any less.

It's also possible that their hurt isn't from some deep, dark wound in their inner psyche. You really could have said something so awful and insensitive that anyone would be hurt by it. You might have done something that was simply out of line. Of all the choices you could have made, you made the absolute wrong one. To be fair, no one is perfect, and we all have our blind spots. It's possible this is one thing you never learned or figured out, and for you saying or doing this is normal, but for the rest of the world it is not.

Again, apologize. Even if you're not sure why, the first step is an apology. The second step is to figure out why you are apologizing. The third step is to pay attention, learn, and be a better person. Finally, don't do it again. Repeat the process as many times as necessary.

This is where your pride might be rearing up in the back of your mind. Your pride is telling you that apologies are for the weak, that if you don't think you did anything wrong, then you never, ever apologize. If that's what's going on in your mind, then I have bad news for you. Your relationships are in serious trouble.

When you don't apologize, ever. When you don't apologize even when you inadvertently hurt your partner, then your relationship is going to rot from the inside. It's going to turn cold and bitter. Your passion will turn into loathing. Your relationship will end badly, or it will continue in misery.

There's a reason that relationship expert John Gottman calls defensiveness one of the four horsemen of the relationship apocalypse. When you make conflict about winning and not harmony, when it's about proving the other person wrong, when it's not about having empathy and understanding, you are destroying your relationship. And if this keeps happening, then clearly, you need to take a seoncd look at how you handle these situations. After all, if you'd rather have a three hour fight than settle it with a ten second apology, I think I can see the problem.

There's a reason the Golden Rule will always be with us. When you treat others as you wish to be treated, you'll have better relationships. Apologize for things you didn't mean, just as you'd like your partner to apologize for things they didn't mean. It makes things a lot simpler and your relationship that much more peaceful. Let go of your pride and think about the relationship. You'll be much happier you did.

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