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Making Up After an Argument

The most important element of a lasting relationship.

Key points

  • The confidence that you will work together through disagreements and conflicts makes a relationship feel safe.
  • Learning to apologize fully is a central aspect of being an integrated person.
  • Feeling guilt for bad behavior is an important developmental step.

In an earlier contribution (Fighting Fair | Psychology Today), I discussed six unacceptable ways of behaving during an argument: physical violence; cursing or yelling; interrupting; bringing up things the other person did wrong; threatening to end the relationship, and using the silent treatment. Agreeing not to behave in any of these ways during a disagreement helps develop a way of working out disagreements.

Here I want to focus on the aftermath of an argument. The capacity to work through and resolve conflicts, rather than ignore or only partially work through them, is at the heart of attachment security.

Recently, there has been a great deal of discussion, and I think misunderstanding, of what it means to feel “safe” in a relationship. It does not mean that the other person will never hurt you. Rather, it means that whenever you hurt each other, there is the promise of working through and resolving the conflict. This requires the capacity to apologize.

Afif Kasuma/Unsplash
Source: Afif Kasuma/Unsplash

What makes it so difficult to apologize? Many people offer faux apologies – e.g., “I’m sorry you feel that way.” What is so hard about saying, “I did that, and it was horrible; I’m sorry I hurt you.” Being able to truly apologize is rare. Yet it is a central aspect of being an integrated person.

Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein called this stage of development in children “the depressive position.” She thought it occurred very early, but current thinking is that children are five or six years old before they can understand they have caused pain, feel empathy for the other, and feel guilt.

Diana and Sam came to couples therapy because they have recurring arguments about how angry Sam gets at their 25-year-old son Dan.

Diana: “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you tell him something’s not okay with you without yelling at him?”

Sam: “It’s ridiculous that a 25-year-old man needs an allowance because he doesn’t get a job.”

Diana: “It’s not ridiculous.” She yelled, “It’s hard to find a good job.”

Therapist: “The issue isn’t whether or not it’s hard to find a job. The issue is that you get upset when Sam yells at Dan, and it becomes a conflict between the two of you. Sam, do you think it’s okay to yell at Dan?”

Sam: “No, I don’t think it’s okay. I just lose it because I have taken care of myself since I was 20 years old, and he doesn’t want to take responsibility for himself.”

Therapist: “Diana, do you understand that Sam feels that it’s not fair that Dan doesn’t have to support himself when Sam has since he was 20?

Diana: “I didn’t get that before. But I understand it now.”

Sam: “But that doesn’t excuse my yelling at him. I need to talk to him about getting a job and maybe help him more.”

Diana: “Yes, that would mean a lot to me.” She smiles at him.

Sam: Smiling back. “Okay, I get it. I’m sorry. I will talk to him and not yell. I promise.”

Being able to fully apologize requires a high level of ego development; it requires the ability to tolerate the bad as well as the good in yourself. That’s hard. Many people defend against feeling bad about themselves because they cannot hold on to anything good if they do.

They split themselves into “good” and “bad” and never fully integrate the two. They cannot accept being a mixed package. Hence, apologizing is not possible because it’s too dangerous to feel you are a bad person. If either party cannot fully apologize, it is not possible to fully work through conflicts. But, Sam was able to fully apologize to Diana, and she was able to empathize with and forgive him.

Sam and Diana felt closer to each other as a result of going through the process of conflict resolution together. Both of them understood that something from Sam’s past was being touched off by Dan’s situation. Once Sam was able to take responsibility for responding inappropriately to Dan, Diana was able to forgive him.