THE BLOG
10/07/2014 04:14 pm ET Updated Dec 07, 2014

Why Does The Conversation Go South After I'm Sorry?

Eric Audras via Getty Images

So your husband forgot your birthday.... well, he remembered, but he went out that morning to buy you a gift and it was terrible (because he didn't read this). And this was the same year that you threw him a surprise party and got him a flatscreen TV. He has realized the error of his ways and said, "I'm sorry." But you're still fighting. What is the issue?

Here are the differences between the male and female interpretation of the man's "I'm sorry."

Men: Oh, OK, I guess I see her point. I'm sorry, so I'll tell her that, and then this whole nightmare is over. Then we can watch TV or have sex. It's 7:59 now so we should be able to start watching at 8, good deal.

Women: Oh, OK, he sees my point. ow we can finally talk about how bad we felt this whole time, how this reminded me of the fights we used to have, how much we don't want this to happen anymore and what we will do differently next time. Also, I will finally get to share my sadness, and maybe even cry, and he will respond lovingly and sensitively. This should take at least 20 minutes of discussion, but probably closer to 45, after which we will cuddle and possibly have sex if we are feeling really connected.

So, tragically, this is what usually results:

Man: I'm sorry.

Woman: Well I am really glad you said that, I mean, this is so upsetting. We always talk about my birthday and it's really important to me and --

Man: Right, I said, I'm sorry. It won't happen next year.

Woman: Well, OK, but you said that before, and I was feeling so hurt, and I still am, and I just --

Man: I don't get why you can't let things end. What else do you want from me? Nothing is good enough with you!

Woman: How are you the one who's mad now? You FORGOT my birthday, would I ever do that to you?

Man: I told you! I had a big week at work! You never listen!

Woman: Wow, so now you're not even sorry anymore.

Man walks into another room

Woman: you always do this! I'm going downstairs, forget this crap.

And so ends another evening of marital bliss on the homestead. It becomes more obvious why this went so poorly when we examine each partner's needs and goals in this interaction:

The woman wants to have her feelings acknowledged and understood, and then to move forward.

The man wants to feel that his wife still loves and accepts him and is ready to move forward.

Would you look at that coincidence? Both want to move forward! How can we get to a place where this is possible? We know that men are generally not good at expressing their emotions verbally, and women are not as good at compartmentalizing and moving on. How can we meet in the middle? Possibly by being self-aware of our own tendencies and aware of this toxic I'm Sorry pattern. And of course, as always, by:

Empathizing

Validating

Expressing relationship Fears

Thinking of what in our Childhood may lead to us feeling triggered now

Directly Stating what we think and feel.

This is not lending itself to an acronym, so I'll give you a sentence as a mnemonic. Everyone Vacuums For Crazy Sex. That's also a good sentence to put on a CD and play for your husband over and over in his sleep.

So, let's try it again.

Man: I'm sorry and I know how upset you feel. You feel like I did this yet again and I will never change. You also may feel especially hurt because you threw me a big party and so you thought maybe this year I'd do something big to reciprocate.

The keys here are EMPATHIZING and VALIDATING. Don't even bother saying you're sorry if you aren't also going to empathize and validate, because your wife still doesn't feel heard or understood.

Woman: I appreciate your apology, especially because you don't usually say you're sorry that easily. I hope that we can talk more about this now because it would make me feel close to share more of what I feel.

She is making sure to VALIDATE how hard it may have been for him to apologize in the first place. She is non-attackingly and directly STATING her need for him to listen and validate her feelings now that she is starting to feel closer to him.

Man: OK, let's talk about it more.

Woman: I really felt that you didn't know me at all. I have tried to tell you how important birthdays are to me, because when I grew up it was always a big deal in my house. So, when you don't acknowledge it, or get something last minute, I wonder if you really know me or value what I want.

She is linking her reaction of disappointment back to her CHILDHOOD. Now, he can see why this issue may be so important to her, without being defensive, because she is talking about her life before he even entered the picture at all. She is also exploring the deeper feelings and FEARS underneath her reaction; this is not just about the birthday, it is about her fear that he does not know or value her at all.

Man: You know, you have mentioned birthdays being a big deal in your house but I guess I thought you felt it was over the top. Now I realize that to you, it is an important way for me to show I love you. I will try and remember this and do better for your next birthday.

Now he can respond to this deeper fear, since he no longer feels attacked. He is empathizing, validating, and even committing to behavioral change for bonus points! I wonder how she will react?

Woman: Thank you, that would be really nice. I love you.

And your imagination can provide the rest, because I am not a voyeur, but instead, The Blogapist Who Helps You Feel Like Your Spouse is Less of a Jerk.

Visit Dr. Rodman on Dr. Psych Mom and Facebook, and tweet to her @DrPsychMom.