the lexicon of modern love

Why Couples Argue So Much Over Apologies

Photo: Cultura/Howard Kingsnorth/Getty Images

Each week on It’s Complicated, we’ll be helping ourselves improve our couplings by looking into the the linguistics of romance.

Georgetown University professor Deborah Tannen knows more about how you communicate with your bae than you do. As the author of the four-years-running New York Times best seller You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, she explored the ins and outs of the ways couples interact with each other, and brought the very real linguistic complications of talking to a romantic partner to the public’s attention. Recently, we spoke to her about why apologies matter, how much gender determines communication style, and the ways in which romantic communication can get better — even when you’re texting. It’s complicated, but understanding is the first step.

What’s the main thing that causes confusion when we’re trying to communicate with people we love?
There is the message, or the meaning of the word, and the meta-message — what it says about the relationship that you speak in this way and this context. Meta-messages are not stated in words, and they can be misinterpreted and missed completely. Every utterance has a meta-message. Even when I say hi: Am I giving a greeting? Am I trying to start a conversation?

When a romantic partner thinks you’re not listening, it’s a terrible judgment about the relationship. It’s equally painful for the person who feels they’re being unjustly accused of not listening. They’re trying to show they care, and to be accused when you know your intentions are good is just as painful.

How can couples go about fixing incompatible meta-messages?
When we have arguments, we often stay on the message level: “You said it”; “No, you didn’t.” If you can explain what it was about how a person spoke that led you to that conclusion, it can help. Be ready to take them at their word — if they say they didn’t mean that, be ready and accept that.

I’ve heard advice that you might try reversing roles, and each articulate what you think the other is trying to say. That can be helpful. We often keep saying our perspective, and they keep saying theirs. If you correctly articulate the other person’s perspective, at least you can maybe move on to “What are we going to do about it?”

Also, sometimes things come up when you are tired or hungry, and when you aren’t tired and hungry, you’re not so angry.

So eat and take a nap and then discuss!
It’s impossible to overemphasize how important it is to show people they’ve been heard.

What are the biggest romantic communication issues you see between men and women?
Between the sexes, a lot of our problems have to do with apologies. You argue about the apology, not the offense. Why doesn’t he just say he’s sorry? A couple I know got into a thing. She kept insisting on what was bothering her, and he said, “I just don’t know what to say.” I was with them and I said, “Try apologizing.” He tried it, and she said, “Okay, fine,” and then we all laughed.

To the woman, the meta-message can feel like “He doesn’t care that he let me down.” The man may feel like “I committed a misdemeanor, but you want me to plead guilty to a felony. Apologies don’t change anything.” Men often think actions are more important than words. That’s why people often argue about saying “I love you.” The woman says that words matter. The same is true with apologies. Often men perceive the meta-message of asking for an apology is the woman wanting him to demean himself. The two overarching questions we come to conversations with are “Is this bringing us closer or further apart?” and “Is this putting me in a one-up or one-down position?” Women are often focusing on the closeness/distance dimension and men on the up/down.

But if you realize words can mean more than one thing, you can acknowledge the impressions of others and also hold onto what you know or felt. And if you understand these dynamics you can come up with your fixes. He can understand why it’s important to her; she can understand why he’s resistant to saying he’s sorry. My own example is that my husband has taken to saying, “I apologize for everything.” It makes us both laugh — that’s another solution, if you can change the tone to humor. But you have to understand the other’s motivation so you stop being bothered by it.

Talking to someone who speaks much faster and doesn’t give you time to talk can be so frustrating! I never know what to do in those cases.
The person using shorter pauses could wait longer between them, or the other could push herself to start speaking sooner. New Yorkers tend to have shorter pause between turns, and there is the impression that we — I’m from Brooklyn — end up interrupting, not giving the other person a chance to speak. Differences in pausing and pacing aren’t only an issue for the one who can’t get the chance to speak, but also for the one who feels they’re being made to do all the work, and feels the other person has nothing to say and/or doesn’t want to participate. There’s that meta level of feeling hurt because you feel the other person doesn’t understand you have good intentions.

Are our communication desires gendered?
Women and men have similar motives but do it differently. Women often don’t want to be explicit about making decisions because they don’t want to seem too demanding. Men can be quite indirect with apologies. They might want to do something nice but don’t want to say it.

Indirectness can vary by culture as well as gender. Another thing is whether you’re focusing on the “who’s up/who’s down” or “are we close or distant” dynamic. I have an example of a guy who says to his wife, “Oh, my friend called, he’s in town and I’m going to have dinner with him,” and she wishes he’d asked, “Would it be okay?” He says, “I can’t tell my friend I have to ask my wife for permission to have dinner.” Most women would say it’s not about permissions — it’s about taking into account that what you do impacts me. It’s the same thing being seen differently.

A further complication: Psychologists talk about how you have to say what you want. But often what you want is the meta-message of caring that you can’t get if you specify it’s what you want. You want the meta-message that they know you well enough and care enough to give you what you want of their own volition, not because you demand it. Sometimes asking for what you want isn’t going to get what you want.

Do same-sex couples face the same issues as heterosexual couples when communicating?
My best friend is gay, and many examples throughout my writing are from gay men. They still have frustrations due to cultural differences, and also due to how important these conversations become when romantic partners are involved. It goes back to what I said in the beginning, that language is underdetermined, and how we mean what we say is in the implications, assumptions, the tone of voice. That will all still be there for same-sex couples.

Are there any stereotypes about gender and communication that are simply false?
The stereotype that women are more sensitive than men is not true; we’re just sensitive to different things. Women can be more sensitive to the implication they’re being pushed away. Men can be more sensitive about feeling they’re being put down.

I’ve heard that couples will adapt their speaking (or texting) styles to match one another, sometimes. Is this true?
It’s mirroring, that you’re going to speak in the same way. I think that happens sometimes. You can get more similar, just from communicating, but sometimes you do the opposite — you get more different.   

How do these behaviors play out in digital communications?
Very similar things happen. The confusion over meta-messages can be worse, because you don’t have tone. But we have ways of correcting for that, using LOL, haha, emoji, and things like capital letters and exclamation points. Women tend to use all those things more, and men’s messages can seem cold in comparison, while women can come across as hysterical. For many women, it’s talk that creates and maintains a relationship, but for men, it’s doing things together. There’s a student in my class who said, “I’m tired of seeing relationship after relationship break up because the girl sends long chatty text messages and gets one-word replies.”

Is there a fix for text dissatisfaction or incompatibility?
It’s kind of like the spoken situation. Once you understand what’s going on — Oh wait a minute, that’s how guys are, that’s how women are, that’s why — you can do something about it. He might make an effort, she might decide to be less offended. She might decide not to text, he might decide to pick up the phone.

What is the difference between how we talk when we’re in love versus when we hate?
Well, there’s a difference between being “in love” and loving, too. When you’re in love you tend to give them the benefit of the doubt, put a positive spin on everything. When hate them you go for the negative message and put a negative spin on things. Language is underdetermined, and both implications are available.