This morning, I unintentionally broke one of Sara's shower items while drying myself off in the tub. The towel knocked it over and broke it into three pieces.
"What broke?" She said.
Sara came into the bathroom, looked at what had broken, and reacted.
"Why are you always breaking things?" She was angry.
What are we supposed to do when we unintentionally hurt those we love? My first thought was I didn't mean to do that. Why are you so angry with me? In the past, I would have stayed in this thought and the conflict would have endured longer than it did this morning.
However, there's something I know now about these sorts of things. My wife doesn't want me to admit that I broke her stuff intentionally, nor does she want me to confessed that I sinned or that I'm stupid or something along those lines. She simply wants to know that I'm sad that I broke it and that I didn't want to break it.
In these moments, both parties are tempted towards shame. Why does she think I'm so stupid? Why doesn't he care more about my stuff? Both parties fear disconnection. Shame is the fear that we are unworthy of relational connection at any given moment.
In these sorts of situations, someone has to break the ice. Someone has to dare to cross the shame barrier and risk reconnection. In our marriage, it is just as often that Sara risks reconnection as I, but this morning, I happened to be the initiator.
After about a minute of silence, while I was in the bathroom processing what had happened, I decided to walk out into the kitchen, and start talking. And here is the huge key that many married couples miss: I didn't try to convince my spouse that it had been unintentional. My wife knew that it was unintentional. I didn't need to argue that point. Unfortunately, many of us try to argue that hurting the other person wasn't our intention. But this misses the point. The other partner mostly wants to know that we feel sad that we hurt them and that we didn't want to do so.
And so that is what I said this morning.
"I'm sorry I broke your thing in the bathtub, Babe. I didn't want to do that."
Then she said, "Thank you. And, I'm sorry I reacted like that."
Do you see the beauty and the power here? Instead of trying to defend ourselves we simply told each other that we were sad over what had happened. I never wanted to break her stuff and she never wanted to hit me with a reactionary "jab". We didn't care so much about motivation, we just wanted to know that the other person didn't want to hurt us.
We ate breakfast, enjoyed our time, and I drove her to play ultimate frisbee. As I was dropping her off, I found myself kidding around with her and being playful.
We had reconnected.
Be careful not to get into the intentional vs. unintentional motives trap. We simply want to know whether or not you were sad that you hurt us, even if it was by accident.