4 Steps To Making Up When You Mess Up

By Robert Taibbi, LCSW

Jake and Molly were off and running within five minutes—something small—the laundry, dirty dishes in the sink, maybe something about a diaper—but somehow it turned into World War III—who did what, who always did, whose mother was right. It was ugly. Jake wound up sleeping on the couch; Molly locked herself in the bedroom.

After a sleepless night, they both bumped into each other the next morning in the kitchen. “Sorry about last night,” said Molly timidly. “Me too,” Jake responded. Standing. Silence. “Hug?” one of them said. “Sure,” said the other, and they did, albeit a bit stiffly. “We’re good?” said one rather limply. “Sure, we’re good.” Done.

Arguments happen, even occasionally bad, ugly ones. The real challenge comes in knowing how to mop up. Jake and Molly’s way is fairly typical—quick and done—they want to put this behind them as quickly as possible. While this approach may be good for the heart (or gut perhaps), it’s lousy for thebrain. Sure, they feel better—their midnight fantasies of divorce (or taking out a contract hit) have died down—but they have made a major emotional faux pas. In the process of patching things up, they ignored the initial problem. Why? Because, understandably, they are afraid that bringing it up yet again will inevitably turn into another WWIII. Best to let it lie.

But as we somewhere in our rational brain know, unsolved problems don’t go away; we just learn how to step around them. Some seasoned couples get really good at such tiptoeing—they have hundreds of topics that off-limits. The only problem is that what they are left with is not much—the weather, the office gossip, how Tommy did in school. A low-grade tension always seems to be just below the surface.

The way out? Make up right. Here are the steps:

1. Cool down. When things get crazy, someone has to step up and be a sane adult. When emotion kicks up, prefrontal lobes—those bastions of rationality—shut down, and problem solving goes out the window. So the first thing to do is to go cool off as soon as you get heated up. Run away from the argument if you have to. Stop talking, lock yourself in the bathroom. Deep breathe, walk around the block…fast.

2. Apologize. Apologizing too is about being an adult. It is not about groveling, doing the mea culpa, taking the rap for the entire argument and problem (“I’m so, so sorry about the laundry”). It’s about acknowledging that whatever you did or said hurt the other (anger is usually about hurt). Period. Don’t apologize simply say as a way of getting the other to calm down, to pacify—”I’m so sorry”—hoping that the other person will feel better and be less angry—so you can feel better. Wait till you’re calm, till everybody’s prefrontal lobes are back online. Then say it and mean it.

3. Talk about the original problem. This is most important part. “I’d like to talk about last night,” says Molly the next day. If Jake is still upset, he says so but doesn’t brush Molly off—he offers another time: “I’m still upset and not sure what I think. How about we try and talk before dinner?” Resist the urge to back away and sweep it under the rug.

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