We’ve all done it: forgotten an anniversary, left a mess in the kitchen, said something unkind about our in-laws, or offended our partners in some other way, even if unintentionally. To get out of the doghouse, romantic partners have employed a myriad of strategies, from flowers or jewelry to love notes, sexual favors, and even tears. If only science could tell us which of these strategies is likely to be most effective, we might reconcile more quickly with our mates and enjoy the many benefits of forgiveness.
Fortunately, a new series of studies by T. Joel Wade, Justin Mogilski and Rachel Schoenberg published in Evolutionary Psychological Science set out to do just that. Wade and colleagues not only asked men and women about the different approaches people might take to reconcile with a mate after an argument, but also how effective each approach might be if a partner used it to resolve a conflict with them. The findings from this research suggest that the right way to apologize may very well depend on the gender of the person to whom you are apologizing. Apparently men and women prefer different reconciliatory gestures.
In their first study, Wade and colleagues asked 74 men and women to report behaviors that have been performed—by themselves or someone else of the same sex—to attempt to reconcile with a romantic partner after a fight. Participants provided over 200 responses, which Wade and colleagues then grouped into 21 individual categories, such as “apologize,” “gifts,” and “sexual favors.” Although there was clearly some overlap in strategies reported by women and men, there were interesting differences as well. Women’s top strategies for reconciliation included apologizing, communication, gifts, affection, and sexual favors. The most common strategies reported by men were gifts, apologizing, nice gestures, sex/sexual favors, and spending time together. Women were more likely to increase communication and give affection than men, and conversely men were more likely than women to give gifts or do a nice gesture.
So the approaches that men and women employ to make peace with their mates are not quite the same. But are they effective? Wade and colleagues noted that men and women prioritize different traits during mate selection, and thus hypothesized that men and women might be differentially responsive to different reconciliatory tactics. When choosing a partner, men tend to prioritize information relevant to a mate’s sexual or reproductive value, while women more heavily weigh a mate’s emotional investment. Thus the researchers expected that men would prefer actions that offer sexual access, but women would prefer actions that indicate commitment and emotional connection.
Wade and colleagues asked 164 men and women to review the 21 reconciliation acts generated in the first experiment, and to consider how effective each act might be if it was done to reconcile with them personally. Participants rated each act on a scale. Just as men and women listed some of the same reconciliatory acts in the first study, there was also common ground here. Both men and women gave high ratings to communicating, apologizing, forgiving your partner, spending time together, and compromising. And both genders agreed on techniques they thought would be fairly futile: ignoring or avoiding one’s partner, drinking alcohol, and giving up.
But men gave higher ratings to sex than women, and they also showed a preference for “do nice gestures” (something men were more likely to report doing themselves). Women gave higher ratings than men for the acts of “spending time together,” “apologizing,” and “crying,” all of which may signal emotional availability, investment, or vulnerability. The authors speculate that a man who cries and/or apologies may be perceived as more in touch with his emotions, and willing to take the blame for the conflict, thereby providing emotional support for his mate.
So men, if you find yourselves in the doghouse, you can put your wallets away: the data suggest that flowers, jewelry, or other gifts are not your best option. Instead, set aside time with your partner and offer a sincere apology. Don’t be embarrassed to shed a tear or two. These behaviors are more likely, according to women, to warm their hearts and cool their anger. And women, if you find yourselves in the hot seat, an apology may be a good start, but demonstrating your regret with affection, sexual intimacy, and other nice gestures is your best game plan.
These findings provide an interesting starting point for those of us hoping to make amends when we offend our partners, but there are several related questions to explore. For example, the authors did not report whether sexual orientation influenced the kinds of reconciliatory behaviors reported by men and women, or the ratings of their perceived effectiveness. Furthermore, although these studies included individuals aged 18—61, the mean age of participants in both studies was mid-twenties. It is quite possible that the techniques we use to reconcile with our partners evolve over time, and that the approaches that are effective in a mature relationship could differ from those in younger relationships. Future research may want to address whether factors like sexual orientation, gender identity, and age influence the way men and women respond to different reconciliatory behaviors so that we all find effective ways to seek forgiveness.