My partner and I have been together for two years now. During that time, we’ve traversed the potential pitfalls of a long-distance relationship, a cross-country move, being unemployed together, getting engaged, BOTH getting laid off, and, now, planning a wedding. As should be obvious by now, we have learned that communication—messy, honest, trial-by-error communication—is crucial for the survival of our (or any) relationship.
What I mean by trial-by-error communication is this: Everyone has different communication styles, and the same way that you resolve conflicts with your best friend or that you resolved them with your ex is likely not going to work with your current partner. You have to see how to best get through things with the person you’re currently with, here and now. Let the situation sit, come back when you’re cooled off? Address it immediately, so neither of you has the chance to spin out and assume the worst? Who knows, until you both ask for what you need and then try it out—it’s different for everyone and every relationship.
Luckily, over time, my partner and I have developed our own set of strategies, and in the midst of all of these life changes, I’ve stopped doing something that I realize sounds a little bit strange at first, but has actually helped quite a lot. I’ve stopped saying sorry.
During a particularly difficult time, I found myself apologizing to him a lot—not because I was doing things wrong, necessarily, but because I felt like I was “too much” to deal with. I was apologizing for being sad, for having low energy, and really for having any emotions at all. He wasn’t asking for these apologies, but there I was, offering them. When I’d had a hard day, and he wanted to go out for dinner, I’d say, “I’m so sorry, but I just can’t. I know, I’m no fun.” When I was crying because I just couldn’t write another cover letter, I’d say, “I’m sorry, it must be awful to deal with a partner who cries so often.” When he was the one doing most of the household cleaning because I was physically exhausted from unexplained migraines, I apologized for the pain that, really, wasn’t my fault. In time, however, I realized that through all this apologizing I was starting to view my valid emotions as a negative thing and that perhaps, by proxy, I was causing him to see my emotions as negative, as well.
To shift back to a more positive space, I started to say, “Thank you,” instead. For example, I started to acknowledge the things he was doing for me to pick up the slack when I was too tired to help out around the house. So, where before I might’ve said, “I’m sorry I’ve been so lazy lately” (which would, in theory, have forced either one of two responses: “You’re not lazy, it’s okay,” as though he was okay with the way things were when in reality, maybe he wasn’t, or “You’re right, you have been kind of lazy,” thus validating my bad feelings about myself), now, I’d say, “Thank you for doing the dishes. I appreciate you.” When he listened to me after I had an anxiety attack, instead of saying, “I’m sorry you have to deal with me feeling like this all the time,” I’d say, “Thank you for listening and caring about how I feel.” Tweaks like that made all the difference.
Rima Danielle Jomaa, a marriage and family therapist, is a big fan of gratitude-based communication. She says, “When we can approach each relationship and interaction in our lives from a space of gratitude rather than frustration, guilt, or resentment, amazing things can happen. If we remember to do it consistently, this behavior will permeate to a general state of well-being.”
In our relationship, I’ve found this to be true. Just by shifting the wording of my “apologies” slightly, whenever I have the urge to acknowledge that there’s an imbalance, it’s changed both my view of the relationship, and of myself. I find that I’m going easier on myself lately, and I don’t feel like I somehow owe him for putting up with me. At the same time, I feel good about the fact that I’m acknowledging that, sometimes when my energy is low and I need to take some time to myself for my mental health, he knows that I notice the energy he puts into the relationship.
However, there ARE some times when “sorry” is still appropriate, and I don’t always throw it out the window—something Jomaa says is healthy, as well. It’s important to recognize the distinction between when a “thank you” will do, and where an apology is actually necessary.
“Of course, we don't want to forget that we do drop the ball on occasions and genuinely owe the other a heartfelt apology. If the other has sacrificed personally for you, it's possible to show your gratitude while also apologizing. You also want to let them know that you plan to adjust your behavior if you've done something wrong. Simply showing gratitude might give the impression that you're not intending to change your actions,” Jomaa says, and that’s absolutely correct.
There have been times in our relationship where a “thank you” isn’t enough, and I’ve had to acknowledge my own shortcomings in a way that goes beyond gratitude. There are times I’ve had to simply say, “I’m sorry that happened,” and ask what my partner needs from me so that I can do better the next time. Like any communication technique, it’s about finding not only what works for you, but also when it works—and when to adjust based on the situation. And while I’m not a relationship expert, and I don’t know what will work for everyone, I do know this: I’m not sorry I’ve stopped apologizing. It’s one of the best things I’ve done, not only for my relationship but also for myself.