How Couples Counseling Works: Part 3

"I'm sorry."

It's often the first thing that partners say to shut down an argument. Unfortunately, it is also one of the least useful. Almost always when I suspect that a partner has offered a discussion-ending apology, I follow up with a few probing questions: "Do you feel guilty right now?" or "What is your feeling about that apology?" Partners will answer with, "no," to the former and "frustrated" to the latter. This usually tells me that they just want the argument to end and don't feel certain how to get there. But if you rely on apologies too early or for the wrong purpose, they'll just make things worse.

This is why the most important part of couples therapy comes last. 

The best couples know how to apologize like champs. Much of the time, healthy couples apologize without ever saying, "I'm sorry," because by the time the apology comes, the offended partner is ready to receive it. Part three of couples therapy is about repair. It is the reward for which both partners have strived.  Repairing from conflict can only take place once both partners recognize their role in their conflict cycles, when they actively work to change their role in the cycle, and when both partners demonstrate empathy. Once these tasks are complete, and once partners defeat their conflict cycle and replace it with a cycle of curiosity, empathy, and patience, then the repair can follow.  

Freeze frame

I know when partners are ready for their repair when they consistently take what's called a "meta-perspective" on their conflict. A meta-perspective occurs when one or both partners stop a moment of conflict and instead of discussing a piece of content (i.e. what the kids should eat for dinner, how much sex they're having or not having, or who should take out the trash), partners instead focus on how the conversation is going. It is a move from "what we're fighting about," to "how we're fighting." Conflict can never be resolved until the snares of defensiveness, blaming, critical comments, and withdrawal are disarmed. The most difficult task of couples therapy is helping distressed couples regulate themselves rather than try to police their partner.

Repairs are the building blocks of solid relationships. John Gottman, who is probably the most famous marriage researcher around, makes a great case for relationship repairs. He suggests that in order for a relationship to thrive, partners have to make five positive interactions for every one negative. Seem staggering? It is difficult to keep up with if you feel like you're constantly at each other. But if you go through the process of empathy and understanding, you've already met your quota by the time you are ready to apologize. This is what makes delayed apologies so easy to deliver: they are so easy to accept. 

Stage three is about healing.

This is the point at which I invite couples to repair from the challenges they've been through. Once couples are ready to both accept and participate in healing conversations, interactions are characterized by primary emotions like sadness and desire rather than anger or blaming. From this posture, repairs knit back together what was torn apart. Couples apologize in their own language, and I'm always surprised by the unique dialects. Almost all couples, however, demonstrate that their partners' pain is their own, and that is what makes a repair truly special. If you're in the midst of conflict, don't rush to end it by inserting an ambitious apology. Seek first to know your partner's pain before you quench her or his desire to stop fighting.

Dr. Mathis Kennington