"They Are Still Upset At Me!"

Dear CMR,

With post-argument conflict, what do you do if one spouse is ready to resolve things and the other is still upset and doesn't want to make amends just yet?


Great question!

One of the key mistakes we make in a relationship is to treat our spouse as he or she treats us.  Thus, if one spouse is angry or upset, we tend to respond in kind.  The result is that frustration continues to grow between spouses.  If you are ready to make amends and move on and your spouse isn’t, then you should seek to apply what communication experts call the rule of reciprocation.  

This rule suggests that people will ultimately treat us the way we treat them.  This rule has strong biblical support.  In writing to the churches at Galatia, the apostle Paul shares his own version of the rule of reciprocation.  He exhorts believers to not grow weary in doing “good to all people” (Gal. 6:10).  Weariness is minimized knowing that in due time “a man reaps what he sows” (Gal. 6:7).  If we regularly do good to others, we can expect that goodness to eventually be reciprocated.  To illustrate his point Paul utilizes a practice familiar to his rural readers—harvesting.  A farmer can only expect to harvest that which he has planted.  You can’t expect to harvest apples when you plant oranges.  This same principle is true of human relationships.  You cannot keep being sarcastic to your spouse and expect sympathy.  What Paul is saying has great consequence to us as communicators and reflects the core truth of the rule of reciprocation.  We can expect to be treated in the same manner in which we treat people.  The generosity we show to others will be repaid.

So, if your spouse isn’t ready to make amends, then continue to treat him or her with kindness, grace, and understanding.  Over time, the rule of reciprocation—along with the prompting of the Spirit—will begin to influence your spouse.  Over time, he or she will start to treat you with the same kindness and grace you offered.


Tim Muehlhoff

Tim Muehlhoff is a professor of communication at Biola University and author of several books, including I Beg to Differ and Marriage Forecasting. For the past 18 years, he and his wife, Noreen, have been frequent speakers at FamilyLife marriage conferences. Muehlhoff regularly writes and speaks for the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships. Follow Dr. Muehlhoff on Twitter.


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