Recovering from Relationship Conflict According to Science



Conflict happens in all relationships. No one is perfect, and when mistakes happen, an apology is a vital part of recovery and healing. However, even with the best intentions, apologies can come up short. Learn how to apologize the right away according to the best relationships science.

So, you had an argument in a relationship. It’s okay—conflict happens. Science actually shows relationship conflict can be healthy. However, it is only healthy because it helps both partners dig deeper into what’s bothering them so they can communicate effectively and grow together. 

Communication and growth can all happen after the first step in conflict resolution: apologizing. 

Knowing how to apologize is an art. You could have the best of intentions and still deliver an apology that misses its mark. Fortunately, there has been a lot of research into what makes the perfect apology, and the answer is surprisingly simple.

How to Apologize Effectively

According to studies, there are six components of an effective apology. To learn how to apologize better, follow these six steps: 

1. Express Regret

When we hurt the people we love, it hurts us. Although saying “I’m sorry” isn’t always enough, it is a good place to start. Your partner will understand that it hurts you to see them in pain, and that you are truly sorry for inflicting any pain on them. 

“I am sorry for [the actions that led to hurt].”

“I never should have done that. I apologize.” 

2. Explain What Went Wrong

A lot of relationship conflict is simply a misunderstanding. While a misunderstanding doesn’t negate the pain that was caused, it can ease the hurt to understand why. Remember not to shift blame from yourself to your partner, but rather to explain what your thoughts and emotions were. 

“I didn’t mean to hurt you. I was trying to . . .”

“It doesn’t take away your hurt, but I want to explain what happened. I . . .”

3. Accept Responsibility

According to the Gottman Institute, a leading source on relationship conflict and how to have healthy relationships, defensiveness is one of the four horsemen that most often end relationships. By learning to accept responsibility for your part in conflict, you move one step closer to conflict resolution. 

“It was my fault this happened.”

“I should have [a behavior that would have prevented hurt].”

4. Declare Repentance

This goes deeper than a “sorry” and should be backed by action aimed to correct the wrong behavior. It acknowledges the hurt that is present and takes steps to stop the behavior from happening again. 

“In the future, I’ll [action that will prevent the same issue from occurring]”

“I won’t let that happen ever again.”

5. Offer a Solution or Repair

Actions speak louder than words. Making a commitment to solve whatever problem was created or to ease the hurt can go a long way in proving that you’re not just sorry for getting caught but that you will make honest changes to be better in the future. 

“Let me finish your task for you.”

“I know it doesn’t make everything better, but I would love to buy you dinner and we can keep talking about this if you’d like.”

“I will replace anything that I broke or damaged.”

6. Request Forgiveness

After an apology, it’s up to your partner to offer forgiveness. Understand that it might take time for your partner to be ready to forgive, but by asking for forgiveness you are giving the power back to the hurt person.

“I understand if it takes time, but please forgive me for what I did.”

“What I did was wrong, and I hope someday I can have your forgiveness.”

How Nonverbal Cues Affect Apologizing

You might not have time to present all of these steps when delivering your apology. It can help to know what your partner values in an apology. Is it the acceptance of responsibility? The offer to repair what was hurt? 

Ask your partner what they believe a sincere apology looks like, and do your best to give them that after a mistake. 

While the structure of an apology can go a long way in rectifying the situation and resolving the conflict, there are other important things to watch out for when apologizing. 

Non-verbal cues are the ways we listen, move, and react. They inform our partner how we are feeling and if our words are genuine. Practice these non-verbal cues for greater communication in a relationship and better conflict resolution. 

How to apologize with non-verbal cues:

Listen first: Practice active listening and hear their story first, and then offer your apology 

Make eye contact: Show you’re serious by keeping eye contact throughout the conversation

Show your engagement: As they’re talking, nod your head or make noises of agreement such as “Right” or “I understand”.

Ask questions: After they’re done talking, ask any follow-up questions you have. Make sure you really understand their side before you start apologizing. 

Keep your facial expression in check: There will be a time for jokes and smiles, but until you both feel good about the conversation, keep it serious. Studies show that partners are more willing to receive an apology that comes with nonverbal cues of remorse than apologies that come with smiles.


At the end of the day, the best apology will be a sincere apology. It’s okay if you need to take space to self-reflect and calm down before you have a conversation about a conflict. Wait until you’re both ready to have a calm, understanding conversation. 

If you and your partner are still struggling with relationship conflict, a professional couples therapist who specializes in conflict resolution therapy can help. Remember, all couples fight. It’s about how we apologize, learn, and move on from conflict that makes a positive difference. Lifebulb offers relationship therapy for couples and spouses who are working thorugh conflict. Give our team a call to learn more. 

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