She Said He Said: Learn to own your part in discord |

She Said He Said: Learn to own your part in discord

Lori Kret and Jeff Cole
She Said He Said
Jeff Cole and Lori Ann Kret
Courtesy photo

Dear Lori and Jeff,

My marriage is deteriorating as my husband and I can’t seem to get past arguments or even
minor disagreements. I’ve tried using the “I feel _ when you _” statements. But he still gets
defensive and says since he doesn’t technically do anything “wrong” he shouldn’t have to
apologize and take the blame. When I try to help him understand what he’s done, he turns it
back on me, saying it was just a reaction to something I did or said. We get nowhere and
eventually one of us shuts down or walks away. I want him to go to counseling to understand
why he can’t apologize and learn to have more empathy for how his behavior affects me. He
says he’s tired of always being labeled as the problem and that it’s not always his fault. What
else can we do?

Signed, Owed An Apology

Dear OAA,

Jeff and Lori: Most couples have communication challenges because both partners are missing
the mark and unintentionally contributing to mutual hurts and the shared dynamic of feeling
emotionally unsafe and unheard. Trying to determine who is at fault does not help — it amplifies
the felt sense of being against one another rather than creating an opportunity to move through
conflict together.

Lori: Start by acknowledging that you are not the only one in the relationship with feelings and
he is not the only one who could work on developing empathy. I appreciate your efforts to use
healthy communication tools, although using the “right” words means little if the tone, emotion
and body language aren’t stemming from a spirit of collaboration. In the heat of conflict, when
partners are emotionally triggered and self-protective, “I feel” statements most often sound like “I
feel hurt when you are a jerk” and this unilateral blaming often invites a defensive response.

“I feel” statements are only truly effective if the partner using this language is: (1) centered and
not in a reactive stance and (2) willing to acknowledge when those feelings were present prior to
the interaction. The hurts and fears that we experience in conflict are often connected to
vulnerabilities we had well before the relationship. A better framework for “I feel” is “I recognize
that I have vulnerabilities about feeling (insecure, unheard, not-mattering, not being good
enough, being too-much) and when you said/ did___, it brought those feelings to the surface. In
doing so, you’re asking your partner to be aware of their piece, but not requiring them to be
responsible for the full weight of your experience. If you’re asking your husband to apologize for
things he has said while in his protective fight or flight stance, be willing to explore and take
ownership of what you may have said or done to trigger his vulnerability or fears. Starting “I feel”
conversations with acknowledging your own part creates safety for your partner to do the same.

Jeff: When most couples are unable to resolve arguments, it’s because both partners feel
unheard. As a result, neither wants to back down and acknowledge what stories they are
bringing to the table. The perception is that the easiest way to self-soothe is to blame the other
person. Unless your husband is doing things that could be considered egregious, your need for
him to apologize may be misguided. What you really should be asking from him is to validate
your felt experience and acknowledge his part in contributing to it. Your expectation that he, in
the heat of the moment, be able to apologize and accept full blame for how you feel is
unrealistic. Nonetheless, he will need to learn to understand how your conflicts create specific
felt experiences for you. He will also need to verbally validate those experiences by reflecting on
how things evolved and saying something like, “Given the circumstances I can see how you
would feel that way.” This may be hard for you to swallow, but you are going to have to validate
his felt experiences, too. Rarely does one partner do or say things that hurt the other without
some kind of hurt feelings within them.

Once you’ve validated each other’s felt experience, you both can collaborate on figuring out how
to do it better the next time — what different words or tone to use and the best way for a difficult
conversation to progress. It’s really about learning how to argue — what each of you needs to
feel supported, what works and what doesn’t and where the boundaries are in terms of lines that
cannot be crossed with specific language or behaviors.

Lori and Jeff: Be clear about the differences between an apology and emotional validation. Be
willing to own your contributions to the discord and you will be more successful in inviting your
partner to acknowledge theirs. Mutual validation is key to building emotional safety and intimacy
in relationships, and the only way to create resolution for most conflicts.

Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen
Relationship Institute. Visit for all previous She Said, He
Said columns.