Apologies are offered and accepted regularly in successful relationships. The question is, what are you —or your partner—apologizing for?

Meaningful apologies can have several different goals:

  • Acknowledging a partner’s pain
  • Acknowledging your role in that pain
  • Implying you’ll try hard to avoid doing the hurtful thing again
  • Requesting a resumption of warm feelings

Not every apology, however, is meaningful. When people say “I’m sorry,” and don’t know what they’re sorry for, the apology is a mere formality. It neither examines the present nor addresses the future. But people do it because they feel uncomfortable with a partner’s resentment or hurt, or they’re eager to resume friendly relations. An apology seems like the entry fee.

Similarly, people often say “I’m sorry,” but then explain why you’re wrong to be upset, or why they aren’t responsible for your pain. They make excuses: “I was really tired” or “things happen.” Such an apology acknowledges your discomfort, but does nothing to assure you that things will go differently next time. There isn’t much solace in this apology.

We should hesitate to accept such apologies. If the apologizer doesn’t know why you’re upset, and can’t give you confidence that he probably won’t do the same upsetting thing again in similar circumstances, why should you comfort the apologizer? By accepting an apology, you’re saying that he’s taken responsibility and you’re ready for reconciliation to begin. This removes the healthy pressure for him to examine what he’s done, the nature of the relationship and your respective needs.

On the other hand, some people take advantage of their status as the wronged party. They drag out the process of describing their wound: “If you don’t know, I’m not saying.” Sometimes they even deny they’re upset: “What’s the matter?” “Nothing.” These strategic moves are part of a power struggle, typically played by people who feel powerless.

Couples need terms of reconciliation, sanction and surrender for the myriad of conflicts, hurt feelings, passive hostilities and thoughtlessness that litter a relationship. People need to see these structures and routines as tools to make life smoother, not as things to use against each other.

Apologizing is an ongoing, normal activity in healthy relationships. Sometimes it’s an event, sometimes a process. Used in perspective, with an appropriate dose of humor, it can deepen intimacy.

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What is intimacy and why are some of us so uncomfortable with it?

No single definition of intimacy can satisfy everyone, but here’s one that works for many people: intimacy is the feeling of being known. It’s a feeling that someone else knows your true self, and the trust that there’s a joint commitment to maintaining your connection even when it’s difficult.

Intimacy takes many forms: verbal, physical, sexual, spiritual. A relationship is all the more powerful — and intimate — when it features more than one of these forms.

Unfortunately, people may focus on different aspects of intimacy. I often hear couples complain that one is only interested in sex while the other is only interested in talking.

Everyone needs intimacy. It is so stressful for people to feel isolated that they inevitably find ways of connecting with others — even if it’s only over whiskey with strangers in a bar.

Not everyone is aware that they need intimacy. Some people are so defended against their fear of dependence, exposure or loss, that they truly believe they need no one. Sadly, they are just fooling themselves.

When relationships are troubled by serious problems with sex, affection, nagging or chronic conflict, the cause is frequently a power struggle about intimacy.

What forms will it take? What are acceptable limits? What will people have to pay in order to get what they need? In healthy relationships, people discuss these questions in various ways, and they are flexible enough to accommodate each other’s needs.

In unhealthy relationships, people attack, criticize and blame each other for the mess they’re in, rather than seeing their mess as a joint creation.

People face a fundamental dilemma: we need intimacy, but we’re afraid of it. The way in which we handle this internal struggle defines our personality and relationship style.

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“So, what is it that we’re doing here?”

Sooner or later most every relationship reaches that “we’ve been dating for a while now…” decision-making moment. At this point, change is inevitable. Is it time to move on, or are you ready to get married?

To answer that, says Jeffry Larson, Ph.D., author of Should We Stay Together?, you must first ask yourself: What are our “couple traits” and how do they influence our relationship?

Unlike individual traits, which focus on your personality or family background, couple traits focus on your relationship. They include degree of acquaintanceship, similarity of values and attitudes, communication and conflict resolution skills. They are also a good indication of whether you will be happy in marriage says Larson, a marriage and family therapist.

“Acquaintanceship is a combination of how well you know your partner and how longyou’ve known your partner before marriage,” says Larson. “The longer you become acquainted with someone before marriage, the better you know them, understand them and understand your couple strengths and weaknesses.”

Marriages that endure involve spouses who know each other on many levels. Each person knows much about the other’s likes, dislikes, personality quirks, hopes and dreams.

Much of this friendship should develop before marriage, which takes time.

To develop the acquaintanceship, “Ask your partner: What are your three most important goals in life?” says Larson. “Hear their fears, their plans. Ask him or her to tell you about their most important values.”

If someone is not willing to be open, consider it a red flag.

“It would make me suspicious if, for instance, the person couldn’t tell me their three biggest fears,” says Larson. “Although I don’t think you have to pull out all the skeletons from your closet.”

In his book, Larson recommends dating for at least a year before deciding whether to marry. “Get to know someone during all four seasons because a year gives you a chance to have a crisis or two. You can see how your partner responds in a crisis and handles stress, how he relates to his family, how he deals with important dates like your birthday, how the two of you handle conflicts. All of this cannot be learned in a few months.”

Use this time to get to know your partner and yourself better. Communication skills should include self-awareness. Ask yourself: What am I thinking? What I am I feeling? What do I want? And once you answer those questions, can you effectively tell your partner in a way that does not offend him or her?

Well-matched couples communicate effectively and solve problems without letting them drag out. They are each willing to accept their partner’s weaknesses without becoming distraught. They learn to accept certain qualities and not try to change their partners.

Strong couples also listen actively. This means hearing the content of what someone says and also listening to the tone of voice and noticing nonverbal cues.

If there is a conflict between verbal and nonverbal messages: The nonverbal never lies. Facial expressions are a true indicator of feelings.

In the end, whether or not to marry is a cognitive decision as well as a decision of the heart.

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