Rabbi Raffi Bilek
I Follow My Own Marriage Advice – part II
How did I do it? How did I get mad at my wife (see previous post) and get an apology in return instead of a retaliation? Let’s take a look at why people often offer resistance rather than a deserved “sorry.”
When we apologize for something, we are admitting that we are wrong. We made a mistake. It is a blow to our ego. Nobody likes to feel dumb, stupid, inferior, etc. Of course, intellectually we all know that making a mistake doesn’t make us bad or stupid – everyone makes mistakes! But emotionally we are not always living with that reality. Making a mistake can feel really crummy. And when someone else is witness to our mistake, we are embarrassed.
So we try to puff ourselves up, put on a strong appearance, lest we look and feel weak. Hence, if you want to avoid a defensive reaction, you have to make your partner feel strong in general so that s/he will not feel weak when s/he makes mistakes. (You will note here that the answer to my opening question turns out not to be a “technique” or a clever turn of phrase – it is an answer that encompasses the whole relationship. Shoulda seen that coming, right?) So how do you make your partner feel strong? S/he must know and feel that you respect him/her. This means that you have to tell him/her that – through compliments, praise, and encouragement. (These are subjects for a post in their own right.) You must respect and convey respect to your partner. Because my wife knows I respect her, she does not feel lowly when she makes a mistake. And she knows that I will love and respect her regardless of this mistake.
Respecting your partner also means accepting that s/he will, of course, mess up from time to time. That means that once a problem is resolved, you let it go, because s/he is just another human being who makes mistakes. My wife knows that I am not going bring this episode up over and over again in the future (except to blog about it to a public audience of friends and strangers); therefore she did not feel she had to neutralize a potential weapon in my hands by proving that she was in fact not wrong. If you are going to refer back to this mistake over and over in the future (“Oh yeah, well what about that time you did XYZ!” “Sorry, I’m not doing [blank] for you, not after you did XYZ…”), you can bet that your significant other is going to try to wiggle out of accepting responsibility for the error, lest s/he have to face these kind of consequences.
And now we come to some of the more situation-specific pointers, comments about how you say it when the issue comes up. Number one, you can’t be wildly emotional or out of control when you tell your partner about the issue. If you do, that can be scary, thus eliciting a retreat; it can be perceived as an attack, thus provoking a counter-attack; and it can also simply engender a parallel response from him/her (in accordance with the function of mirror neurons, which, in brief, make it that people are likely to reflect back to someone the emotion they are being shown – as Shlomo HaMelech says, kamayim hapanim lapanim, ken lev ha’adam la’adam).
Number two, do not insult or put your partner down. Again, you are asking for a protected response if you do, and that is not your goal. (If your goal is to hurt your spouse’s feelings, then go right ahead. But then it is probably the case that you are juvenile, or else sadistic.)
Number three, you must address the behavior, not the person. “I am disappointed that you forgot [blank],” not “You’re an idiot.” In my case, I said to my wife about what had happened, “this was poor judgment,” not “you have poor judgment.” See the difference?
There’s a lot more to say on this, and I’m sure we’ll come back to the topic in the future. But here we have laid out some of the underlying ideas that help a couple to weather each other’s mistakes and even to get angry about them, as well as some of the specifics of effectively expressing that anger.