of sunburn and apologies

Casey saw his friend Sarah at the mall food court. As she came over to where he was sitting, he stood up and greeted her by lightly patting her on the back. Sarah flinched and winced in pain, saying, “Ow! That hurt! I got a bad sunburn at the park yesterday!”
Of course Casey felt bad, but also felt like Sarah was attacking him for hurting her. He quickly said, “I’m sorry, but I didn’t do anything wrong!” He thought to himself, “I wouldn’t intentionally hurt her, and I certainly didn’t mean to hurt her. I pat people on the back all the time. How was I to know that that would hurt her?”  Sarah, still looking hurt, said, “But my back hurts because you patted me on the back!” She thought to herself, “Can’t he see that he hurt me?” Still feeling misportrayed, Casey stammered, “But really, I didn’t do anything wrong!” He thought, “I can’t believe she thinks I would really try to hurt her. What kind of person does she think I am?”
This parable illustrates the way that many couples interact when one is hurt. One person says they’re hurt, and the other doesn’t apologize, but instead defends their intentions. Perhaps you have learned to communicate like this and usually think in terms of right and wrong when there’s a conflict, meaning one person has to end up being wrong. This happens often, and misses the point one person is trying to make, which leads to a disconnect and unresolved hurt. Casey didn’t feel like he could apologize for hurting her without admitting that he did something wrong, and he was not willing to admit that, because his intentions were nowhere close to that. If he had said, “Sarah I’m so sorry that when I patted you on the back I hurt you,” she likely would received what she wanted, which was an acknowledgement that he had hurt her. Whether it was intentional or unintentional was not her point. She just wanted to have Casey express concern that he had hurt her, and she would have felt cared for and valued.

Thinking differently

We can learn to think differently, and realize that offering an apology for something we said or did that caused hurt does not mean we have to be wrong. (Sometimes though, we just are.)
If our conflict resolution style is set up where one person has to be right and the other has to be wrong, we both lose. In most cases, we just want our partner to acknowledge that we were hurt.

The moral of the story

So the moral of the story is, focus on soothing the hurt rather than assigning the blame.

Greg Griffin is a Pastoral Counselor in private practice in Marietta. His specialty is relationship repair and rescue- helping partners, spouses, and parents and their adolescents. He’s also the author of Dungeon Times Survival Guide, and Vital Faith.

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