Four Responses

Posted on April 8, 2019


A client shared with me about their family of origin’s hopes of having a meeting with their father to try to reconcile from the siblings’ experience of childhood abuse.  In helping my client set expectations, I offered that there were four possible tacks that dad could take.  I think these are fairly universal when trying to heal from violations of love and trust.  Only one of them brings true healing.  I offer them here so that 1) if you are the violator of love and trust, you know how to repair and what to avoid, and 2) if you are the one who was betrayed, you can gauge what to expect.

As we look at them here, let us consider them in the context of marriage.  Inherently, you will love each other imperfectly.  There will be times when you will hurt your partner.  How you respond when your partner brings that hurt to you will greatly impact whether or not this becomes something we heal from or an attachment injury that comes up again for years.  So, without further ado, here are your options.

Defensiveness/Minimizing.  This is one of the ways you can make your partner’s pain all about you.  This is the stand where you tell your partner either 1) you’ve got it all wrong, 2) you would have done that too if you were in my shoes, 3) it’s really all your fault, not mine, or 4) you’re making a big deal out of nothing.  It wasn’t that bad.  Choosing this strategy will (assuming the relationship lasts) cause this incident to come up again years or decades later.  The incident meant something to your partner, and he or she was told he or she was wrong to feel that way.

Shame.  “I am a horrible person.”  This is still making it about you.  Even if this includes tears and apologies, your response is about your experience of shame and not about your partner’s pain.  You are both left alone in your pain.  It is an exit from connection.

Check the Box.  “Okay.  I’m a big person.  I can stand in the line of fire so we can put this behind us.”  With this strategy, you are ostensibly doing what you need to do.  You are listening to the complaint and acknowledging that you were in the wrong.  The problem is that what your partner really needs is for you hear their pain and care about it.  If you appear to be just checking the box so we can put this behind us, it will backfire.  This is not just about listening to the complaint, but having your partner have the sense that you get what it meant to him/her, and that you care.

Empathy/Repentance.  Your partner isn’t crazy.  If you can look at this through his/her eyes, there will always be a sense in which his/her response makes perfect sense.  For your partner to experience empathy from you requires three components: 1) I get what it is like to be you.  2) I care what it is like to be you.  3) You have a sense that those first two are true.  For the repentance component, your partner needs a sense that you regret the pain that he or she experienced.

It is possible to do this even if you did not do anything wrong or if the situation was all just a misunderstanding.  Even if you approach the relationship with the best of intentions, there will still be times when you hurt each other.  It just goes with the territory of imperfect people being in relationship.

But suppose your partner says, “You said, ‘x,’” and you are pretty confident those words never left your mouth.  You might try asking some clarifying questions about when you said “x” and what the context was.  Still confident you didn’t say that?  If you had said “x” it would probable make sense why your partner is upset.  Rather than argue over what was said (which you will never solve), you can acknowledge, “You understood me to say ‘x.’  That makes sense why you would have been hurt by that.”  After that lands, there is space to ask, “Can I tell you what I thought I said?”  You can accomplish what you would have wanted to accomplish with the defensive strategy (i.e. telling my side) without becoming defensive.

If you master this skill, little things don’t become big things, and good times don’t get swallowed up by sudden blow-ups.  It might take a few tries.  When you change how you respond, it is a shock to the system so stick with it.  It takes perseverance to make real change.