The goal of an argument is to reach a resolution that you and your partner both feel good about, right? But what if the concluding statement has the potential to be triggering? The phrase “I’m sorry you feel that way” can have that effect. Still, it’s an expression that we tend to use a lot. We asked two therapists—one for, one against—to explain the perks and pitfalls of spewing these fighting words.
1. Pro: Dr. Diana Wiley
Yes, the phrase “I’m sorry you feel that way” can launch 1,000 fights, but per Dr. Wiley, a marriage and family therapist and author of the recent book Love in the Time of Corona: Advice from a Sex Therapist for Couples in Quarantine, it all depends on how you decide to use it in battle. “’I’m sorry you feel that way’ can be productive, but appropriate use depends so much on context and tone,” she says.
For example, if your partner is pissed that you left the dishes in the sink again, but the deed is done and they’re upset, you might say: “I’m sorry you feel that way.” You didn’t mean to be so thoughtless about something they care about, but you can’t go back in time and change what happened. You feel badly that you caused them distress.
Another usage: Say, your spouse simply can’t imagine how and why you’d talk to your friend about something vs. going to them directly. After much discussion, you’re at a crossroads. “I’m sorry you feel that way,” is all you can say.
“As long as it’s uttered in an apologetic and understanding way, the phrase can help diffuse the disagreement,” Dr. Wiley says. “But if you say it with a dismissive tone or in a defensive matter, it can escalate misunderstandings and tensions.”
She adds that the word sorry also has varying definitions, which is what complicates use of the phrase. “It can mean sad, in the sense that I am sad that you feel that way. Or it can mean apologetic, which can imply that I am apologizing for something I said or did that resulted in your feelings being hurt,” Dr. Wiley says. “Given it’s common use, it does have the potential to trigger an unintentional emotional response.”
An alternative to the phrase if you’re looking to avoid misinterpretation: “Try, ‘I hear you and I have a different perspective.’ This pivot makes it safer to honestly reveal and address differences because it sets the stage for each person’s views to be heard and respected,” Dr. Wiley says.
2. Against: Dr. Kaitlin Kindman
PSA from couples therapist Dr. Kindman: Do not use “I’m sorry you feel that way” in an argument ever. “It’s likely well-intended and meant to acknowledge the emotions of the other person or to diffuse conflict, but it’s way too vague to communicate what you’re really thinking and feeling about the other person’s experience,” she says. Because of that, the impact is much more likely to invalidate their feelings or gloss over them altogether.
Think of it this way: When your partner tells you that they’re frustrated with something you did, it’s not easy to hear. If you disagree with their take or feel misunderstood, a common reaction is to feel sad, defensive, angry or shut down altogether. But, according to Dr. Kindman, uttering “I’m sorry you feel that way” comes from a self-protective space that only lightly acknowledges their feelings while carving out room for you to defend yourself and explain away your actions.
“We tend to overuse ‘sorry,’ when it should be reserved for true apologies,” she says. “‘I’m sorry you feel that way’ just isn’t a meaningful apology. It would be better to say, ‘I hate that you’re having that experience and my actions had that impact on you. I feel sad hearing this and I’m sorry for what I did. What can I do to make it better?’”
Otherwise, ‘I’m sorry you feel that way’ reads as ‘I think you’re overreacting to this small thing and now I’m frustrated by how you’re portraying me and I’m trying to say something to just make this conflict go away,’ explains Dr. Kindman. The result? Escalating conflict.
But if you are feeling the way these words convey (i.e. not ready to genuinely apologize for your actions) but still want to diffuse the conflict, try taking a few deep breaths and repeating back what you have heard your partner say to validate them. Per Kindman, “This will help both of your nervous systems calm down a little, so that you can hear each other again. Then, you can try to express that you disagree with some of their story and that you want to come to a more mutual understanding of what happened.”