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The Right Way to Tell Your Partner You Were Wrong

Say it with us: "I was wrong."

Disagreements. Spats. Arguments. Full-on fights. They’re present in your marriage, because of course they are. Some are useful, some are silly, some go off the rails. It happens. Deep down you know that many of them would have resolved themselves faster if you fessed up and said three simple words: I was wrong.

But those words are hard to utter, aren’t they? They’re bit scary and, well, maybe you were never taught how to say them. As a kid, if you fessed up, you probably got punished. In school, wrong answers got minuses. Being right was always the goal. Sound familiar? It’s this way for a lot of folks. But that attitude doesn’t play well anywhere, especially not at home where most issues are less about absolute facts and more about feelings and best guesses.

You can try to prevail, and you might through sheer endurance, but when the “opponent” is your spouse, there’s not much to celebrate. “Winning is actually losing,” says Carl Hindy, clinical psychologist in Newmarket, New Hampshire, and author of If This is Love, Why Do I Feel So Insecure?

Realizing this doesn’t make it easy. Those three words, I was wrong, leave you exposed and, well, feeling as though you don’t know as much as you’d like.

“Being humble takes a lot of courage,” says Quentin Hafner a couples therapist in Orange County, California. It also takes strength and a resolve to prioritize the relationship over your ego. Oh, and there also needs to be support.

Sufficed to say, the ability to admit that you’re wrong is important. It’s also freeing, as it helps you be more receptive to your partner and your partner to be more honest with you. That’s a good thing. Plus, it’s vital for the kids to hear you admit fault. Otherwise, they’ll think that’s not something they should do.

So how do you get better at telling your partner you were wrong?  Here are some suggestions to help.

Set Up an Agreement

There are a lot of useful, simple lines to say when you’re in the wrong: I dropped the ball. That was my fault. I’m being stubborn. But nothing will resonate if you and your spouse don’t allow for them to be said. Without a pact of sorts, your words will get an eye roll and a rebuke and merely reconfirm what you always seem to do. And then the motivation is gone. “The next time, you won’t even say it,” says Hafner.

So, lay down — and agree to — some rules. When someone admits being wrong, the other first acknowledges and appreciates the admission. Yes, this might be rough for you because it’s new and different, so you can say that what you need right now is for your partner to listen, not react, and, contrived as it sounds, you can even set up a code word to keep you on task. Sometimes it takes, “This is one of those toaster conversations,” as a reminder of what’s being done in the moment, he says.

The Right Way to Say You Were Wrong

With the foundation in place, now you pick whatever “I was wrong” line feels right. While the initial “I screwed up” is a huge improvement over digging in and never conceding, Hindy says an even better move is to add in a compliment, something like, “I wish I could remember stuff like you,” to show appreciation for your spouse.

“The real score is to make your partner feel good,” he says.

What also helps is when you know you came up short, don’t wait to be caught. Pull over the car and text or as soon as you walk in, announce, “I completely blanked. I’m so sorry,” with no excuses or attempts to make it about what your partner did or didn’t do.

No, whatever it is is on you and you own it, and that usually short-circuits any battle. But, you can go a step further and offer an immediate solution. Forget her coffee at the store? Apologize and say, “I’ll run out right now to get it.” The combination is often all that a person wants.

“You’ve shown intent, and you care about it,” Hindy says. “It’s not just an apology to shut them up. An apology and an offer to fix it shows the apology is real.”

Build Up Your Tolerance

One challenge is that admitting that you were wrong hinges on saying less-than-positive things, and many couples have little experience with that. Hafner offers a daily exercise to give you a chance to practice: Ask each other, “What did I do to hurt you today?” Sounds harsh, but this, he says, allows you to share stuff that otherwise gets buried or tuned out over time.

Now, the exercise comes with a couple of rules. When engaged in it, is not open season with criticism and it’s not a precursor to a conversation. You say your piece. The other person listens, and then you move on. It’s a way to get things out, especially for a partner who’s reticent or timid to share. “It builds tolerance,” he says.

How to Hit the Brakes

One sticky situation occurs when you’re in an argument. It takes a certain control to cool down and stop digging your heels if that’s what you’re used to. But you can try, “I know I’ve gotten way too wrapped up in this,” or “What am I doing? Being dumb, that’s what.” The one thing to be aware of is that while your intent is to end the fight, it needs to be mutual or it’s just another form of being in control and getting in the last word, Hindy says.

You can ask, “Does this really matter? How can we get out of this?” Maybe you suggest taking a pause and revisiting the conversation. A good sentiment to voice when the moment calls for it is, “I don’t want us to be arguing. I trust your judgment,” which recertifies respect and consideration. Whatever you say, there’s an idea and your spouse gets to weigh in, making a new kind of victory.

“The winning is that you ended it in a positive way and that your partner feels better and is understood,” Hindy says. “That’s the most powerful thing.”