The Right Way to Say, “I’m Sorry.”

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I am a relationship therapist in San Francisco. I know relationships. And I have something important to tell you about dating, marriage, and relationships:

Conflict Is Inevitable

In relationship it’s inevitable that we’ll step on each other’s toes and have different needs that conflict.  And it’s likely we’ll want or need different things at the same time.  When this happens, the situation is ripe for conflict, hurt and disappointment.

So, when the dust has settled, how do you repair?  Do you brush it under the rug?  Do you uncomfortably or reluctantly dip your toes in the water with each other?  Or do you make the repair explicit and direct. 

Get Good At Repairing

Repair is a critical part of relationship.  If you aren’t good at repairing, your relationship is probably in trouble.  Conflict is inevitable, because difference is part of what sparks chemistry.  So, relationship pros know that it’s important to clear things up, not let it smolder or fester.  And the best way to do that is directly, with care and mutuality.

As I’ve seen couples negotiate repair, step into each other’s shoes and acknowledge their part and their partner’s feelings, I’ve noticed that there are two kinds of ‘Sorry’.

The differences aren’t glaring, but there are important subtle distinctions that communicate different feelings and intentions.  In a nutshell, one is closer to acknowledging how your partner felt and understanding it with care and compassion.  The other is more like saying, “Yeah, I screwed up.  I let you down/I crossed a line.”  Both can include or embody the words and message, “I’m sorry.”  But which one is better, or more appropriate, depends on the situation.

I Care About How You Felt

The first one is kind of like stepping on someone’s toes.  It’s inadvertent.  There’s no foresight about the hurt.  Usually, there is no selfishness or neglect.  You’re different, separate people so imperfect attunement and missed wishes, preferences and needs are inevitable.  Casually put, ”Shi* happens.” It’s unfortunate, but part of life and totally repairable.

Example:  You walk by an ice cream shop and you want ice cream. Meanwhile, your partner wants to go home.  You think: This will only take a minute.  Your partner thinks: He knows I want to go home and he’s ignoring my desires. I feel like he doesn’t care. I feel ignored and hurt, like I don’t matter.

Simple example.  Maybe you can think of a better one from your own life, in fact.  But the point is, you have differing wants and needs.  Someone is going to have their needs left unmet. 

A repair of this kind is about acknowledging that your partner had needs and while you were trying to get your needs met (normal human stuff) your partner didn’t get theirs met.  And it’s likely that because you two have some history around this kind of thing, you end up feeling unimportant, hurt and you react.  An argument ensues, and you get disconnected. 

The kind of repair or apology in this case is more about understanding and responding to how the hurt partner felt.  Step into their shoes, experience care and share compassion for how they felt.  You weren’t wrong, but something happened.  Find a place inside that can understand and communicate care from that space.  For some couples repeated experiences like this become a stuck spot that requires some deeper exploring and working through, often with the help of a therapist.

I Screwed Up

The second kind of ‘Sorry’ is more about taking responsibility for doing something that is an implicitly or explicitly held agreement about values and behaviors in your relationship.  Hopefully this kind of repair is needed less.  But in some relationships these kinds of “violations” happen more frequently.

When they do happen and repair is needed, it’s more like saying, “I screwed up.  I see that what I did/said was against our values and hurt you.”  It needn’t be a huge aggression.  It could be that you were selfish.  Or thoughtless.  It could be that you were out-and-out hurtful and reacting to some other hurt you felt from them. 

In any case, the repair is more of an apology and ownership of responsibility and regret or remorse about how what you did or said caused hurt and/or harm.  Again, setting aside your experience just for the moment, step into their shoes and tell them how you understand them.  Then let them know how their hurt actually impacts you (sadness, disappointment, guilt, pain) and that you care and wish it hadn’t happened. 

In either case of ‘Sorry’: Curiosity, Openness, Working to Understand/Put Yourself in Their Shoes, Communication of Empathy and Care are key ingredients.  If you get stuck along the way, you may need some help learning to repair and/or sorting through more complex relationship dynamics.  A good couples counselor or therapist is a great ally and can help you create an even better relationship than before.

I love hearing how these ideas are helping OR where you get stuck! Feel free to leave a comment below, drop me an email, or if you want to some help changing how you relate and are creating the love you want in your life - feel free to call me for a free 15 minute phone consultation at (415) 797-8297.  I am San Francisco’s resident relationship therapist helping couples create the love and life that they want!

5 Questions That Create Happy Relationships

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In case you didn’t get the memo, communication is the thing that makes relationships click.  Well, its one of the things.  Maybe one of the most important things.  Intimacy, vulnerability and expression of care are also huge, but they all rest on the basic skill of communication.

Not everyone is super skilled or comfortable with “real” communication.  But since you’ve decided you like this person so much, why not talk to them?  And why not really talk.  Practice it, grow, stretch a little if these kinds of questions are a stretch.  They’ll feel better, you’ll feel better, and you’ll be investing in your mutual long-term happiness.

If you don’t already have a weekly time set aside to really connect, start to make time.  John Gottman’s research-based Magic 6 Hours for satisfying and long-lasting relationships suggests it’s a no-brainer.  Try asking these questions or others that are in the same neighborhood and see how they improve your relationship.  And of course, this is a two-way street.  These questions should always be asked to both partners.

1.How was your day/week…would you tell me something about it that was hard so I can help you hold it?

Sometimes its hard to ask and be asked this kind of question.  Sometimes we’re silently dying to have our partner ask and help us hold or sort through something.  When you ask this kind of question, try to stay away from advice giving and certainly from taking sides with anyone other than your partner, and definitely from any form of critical comments.  Offer words of empathy, understanding, care and support.  Ask follow-up questions that give your partner the opportunity to explore more and re-articulate just what they’re really feeling and thinking.  For more see Gottman’s Stress Reducing Conversation.

2.What do you need most from me at the end of a day?

Knowing what each other need and being able to try to get some or most of that met by each other is a life-long tango you’ll be dancing, so see if you can do it more intentionally and consciously.  Letting your partner know explicitly that you are interested in, care about and aware of their needs (even if you can’t meet them perfectly) is a huge part of the dance.  Do your best to stay aware of each other’s needs and collaborate.

3.What is something you feel like you struggle with, that maybe you haven’t ever shared with me?

It’s not uncommon to hold things back from the person we’re most vulnerable to, even though (or maybe because) we want to feel seen and accepted by them.  Asking this question can open a doorway in your relationship for deeper intimacy and connection.  Staying compassionate and non-judgmental will be a key to success. 

4.What is one of the most important goals/dreams you have that I can support you in and share with you?  (Follow up: Can you help me understand more about why that goal/dream is so meaningful to you?)

John Gottman’s 30 years of research tell us that shared meaning in our partnerships are an important element in long-term satisfaction.  Being a part of or even just a present cheerleader and advocate for each other’s goals and dreams paves the path for us to be there to hold disappointments and achievements together.

5.What is one thing I do that bothers you or is hard for you? (Follow up: Can you help me understand why and a way that might work better for you?)

Most of us steer clear of things that others don’t like about us.  But its unrealistic to expect that you’ll be perfect, or that you won’t bug or even frustrate your partner at times.  Get it out there on the table in a collaborative way so it doesn’t come out sideways in a moment of anger.  Maybe even find a way to get more light-hearted about it and put yourself in their shoes.  You’re both different and both imperfect, so some friction is par for the course.  Get good at acknowledging and talking constructively about it.

I love hearing how these ideas are helping OR where you get stuck! Feel free to leave a comment below, drop me an email, or if you want to some help changing how you relate and are creating the love you want in your life - feel free to call me for a free 15 minute phone consultation at (415) 797-8297.  I am San Francisco’s resident relationship therapist helping couples create the love and life that they want!

How To Stop Arguing + Get Your Partner To Listen To You!

You may have heard of The Four Horsemen.  It’s an apocalyptic image and term in our culture.  But did you know that the Four Horsemen are probably actually living in your bedroom?!

Arguing and conflict that includes criticism, defensiveness and other elements of Dr. John Gottman’s 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse predict that a marriage will fail about 5 ½ years after the wedding.  So, whether you’re already married, or imagine yourself moving towards marriage with your love-bug, you can’t afford (emotionally or financially!) to let the arguments and disconnection continue.

In this short article, I’ll talk about some powerful ways to stop arguing so much, AND to get your partner to listen to you more! Seriously!

1. Stop The Arguing

You may have heard that relationships require a give and take.  Well, here’s the hardest part of getting what you want from your partner.  One of you needs to step out of the cycle of escalation and criticism.

Arguing is often borne out of a desire to be seen as right!  We all like to be right, to FEEL right.  It feels more solid, and good.  We think we’ll get what we want when we are right or seen as right by others.

Problem is, asserting how RIGHT we are, seldom leads to a genuine acknowledgement and agreement from those we want it from the most.  More likely, they also want to be seen as right and feel that “right” feeling!  Duh, they’re human too, just like us.  And so, the battle ensues.

Step 1 - Softening

Next time you feel you’re partner sees you as wrong, or doesn’t see how amazingly insightful, intelligent and full of foresight you obviously are…try this…

  • Try slowing down and pausing. (If you need to, take a short time-out in your discussion.)

  • Ask yourself what you are needing right now.

  • Then, see if you can discover what’s beneath that need. (i.e., to feel safe, to feel loved, important, wanted, valuable, etc.)

  • See if this can help you soften a bit. It can shift you from feeling your partner/the other is an obstacle or against you, and put you in touch with the simple reality of the need you’re feeling and your attempt to get that need met.

  • Sharing vulnerability and need is the antidote to The Four Horsemen, so see if you can uncover the need and vulnerability you’re experiencing and let your partner in on it. It’s the honey vs. vinegar (criticism and blame) theory: You get more with honey than you do with vinegar.

These are first steps at working towards collaboration rather than confrontation or conflict.  Slowing down, being more mindful of the process you’re in and sharing vulnerably are the first steps.

2. Give The Gift You Want To Receive

The next step is actually a big ask.  I’m asking you to listen to your partner, first; let that open up a new kind of space and interaction between you; and then, ask for the gift you’ve just given and demonstrated.

“What!?”   “You want ME to do the listening that I want my partner to do for me,” you may be asking?!

Mmmm, yeah, I know it stings.  I’m sorry to be so direct, but in my experience, this is the medicine your relationship needs.  You both need to take it; ideally, you both will together, but if not, who’s going to take it first?

Again, if the old axiom is true, you GET more with honey than with vinegar.  It may be a very big ask, but it really is a big key to healing.  Whether it’s in international politics, workplace negotiations, or romantic relationships, we have to be able to come to the table with goodwill, collaboration and openness if we are going to make real progress.

Step 2 - Listening

  • Try to find some space inside yourself where you can open up and be curious about your partner’s point of view and experience. This is THE key.

  • Just for the moment, set aside your position, objection, need, etc. Just for the moment.

  • Soften into curiosity and openness to the possibility that your partner isn’t the enemy, but has some very legitimate and important needs and feelings of their own that have been hidden from your view due to the conflict and arguing.

  • From that place, try: Listening with curiosity, non-defensively reflecting back what you hear, empathizing with how they see and feel about things, and validating – sharing how their experience makes sense to you.

This is an amazing GIFT you’re giving to your partner.  Imagine how good it would feel to be given this gift by them…the gift of feeling genuinely listened to and understood.  Can you give this gift?  If you can’t, why are you expecting them to give it to you? 

If you can, then perhaps they will also be willing to give the gift in response.  Go ahead and ask.  It may help to be explicit about the fact that you want to listen to them, model how to listen to and be understanding, and then ask them to do the same for you.  And for your relationship.


So, coming full circle, stopping the painful and destructive escalation of conflict-filled arguing, criticism, and defensiveness is directly tied to listening and being listened to.  It’s not easy, but it sure is a whole lot better then a failed relationship or a failed marriage a few years down the road.  The stakes ARE high.  And you and your relationship ARE worth it!

This is not rocket science, but honestly, it’s not necessarily easy either.  Many couples, in my opinion all couples, need the support and guidance of a good couples and relationship counselor to help learn these new moves in your relationship.  The old painful and ineffective dance steps you’ve known may need to be deconstructed and the new ones integrated.

If things don’t click at first keep trying, and if you decide you want some help and guidance along the way, I’m here to help you like I’ve helped many other couples to improve their communication and experience of feeling connected and in love.