On the one hand, this conflict can be very deleterious to the health and overall well-being of the individual, as we will go into in more detail below. Certainly we are all familiar with relationships that seem to be built almost exclusively around conflict, and these can in many cases be severely unhealthy.
On the other hand, it’s also true that conflict is a major component of what makes relationships interesting. Of course here we’re not talking about major fights or hurtful words, but strong differences of opinion can lead to interesting conversations and learning opportunities for both partners.
Furthermore, as conflicts are bound to arise when two individual people enter into relationship, the absence of conflict can be just as detrimental to a relationship as the abnormal or pathological presence of an over-abundance of conflict. If relationships do not involve the occasional conflict, they are likely not growing or progressing, instead opting to ignore issues.
Thus it is apparent that a healthy balance must be struck: too much conflict can be unhealthy, but too little conflict or the avoidance of conflict can potentially also be unhealthy.
In this context, it becomes paramount to find ways to meet conflict head on without fear or reservation, to engage in conflict in a healthy, loving, mutually beneficial way, and most importantly, to maturely recover from conflict and heal the rift in relationship.
Pursuant to this last category – how to recover from relational conflict – recent research has developed our understanding of the role of apologies in close relationships.
Problems in Close Relationships
To begin, the article reviews research establishing a close link between problems in close relationships and negative psychological and physical outcomes. The researchers identify outcomes such as psychological distress, elevated blood pressure, depression, and immunological disruption as potential negative effects of problems in close relationships.
The authors then identify a potential cause for some of these negative health effects that they refer to as “interpersonal transgressions.” These transgressions are defined as emotionally hurtful events or circumstances in which one partner has caused the other emotional pain through actions or through failure to act.
What Is an Apology?
Nonetheless, the authors did find that the literature on apologies has consistently identified five components central to apologies:
- Acknowledgement of wrong-doing
- Acceptance of responsibility
- Expression of remorse
- Offer of compensation
- Communication not to commit the transgression again in the future
The authors then review literature establishing that each of the separate components listed above have been identified to be valuable per se in the resolution of interpersonal conflict and particularly to address interpersonal transgressions in close relationships.
Without acknowledgement, there can be no apology, and the victim of the transgression does not receive any sort of confirmation that the transgressor was aware of the mistake. Second, acceptance of responsibility is necessary in order to admit blameworthiness and swallow pride. Third, expressing remorse indicates that the transgressor realizes how severe the transgression was, an empathetic response.
An offer of compensation helps restore balance in the relationship, and serves as an additional proof that the transgressor does in fact feel remorseful. This helps smooth over negative consequences, as it realigns the victim’s perceptions of the transgressor along a more positive light. Finally, the communication that the transgression will not happen again in the future help facilitate forgiveness.
With this framework established for what an apology is, the authors continue on to review established factors that are known to predict whether an apology will occur and how effective an apology will be. The researchers identified elements such as relationship closeness, time of transgression, timing, communication, types of affection, empathy, gender, and offense severity often times play a role in whether an apology takes place and how effective it is.
To give an example, one research study demonstrated that apologies may be more effective when the transgressor takes time to listen to the victim, making them feel heard or understood.
Apologies in Your Relationship
For example, consider a situation where a partner in a romantic relationship has been inconsiderate of the other’s feelings, and committed a serious interpersonal transgression. Imagine that they acknowledge their error, express remorse, offer compensation, and even communicate that the process will not happen again. This would certainly constitute an apology.
However, in reference to the five components above, it is apparent that one component is missing: to admit responsibility. Even if the apology is received and the transgression is forgiven, it is entirely possible that lingering resentments – spoken or unspoken; known or unknown – could remain because the transgressor did not adequately admit responsibility.
In conclusion, interpersonal relationships are one of the most important factors in determining general life satisfaction and well-being, and to provide regular maintenance to close relationships is of paramount importance. To apologize in the face of interpersonal transgression is no longer simply conventional wisdom: it’s science.
Lewis, J. T., Parra, G. R., & Cohen, R. (2015). Apologies in Close Relationships: A Review of Theory and Research. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 7(1), 47–61. https://doi.org/10.1111/jftr.12060