November 3, 2014

He was owning his 10 percent, and it was melting my icy heart

I still remember that weekend. A bunch of college students were spending the weekend at our home and needed the downstairs space, so Ben and I were holed up in our office. I can’t remember the exact circumstances anymore, but here’s what I do remember: I had done something wrong, and I was mad about it.

Yep, you read that right. I was upset. Not the “Oh shucks, I made a mistake!” kind of mad at yourself, but the defensive kind of mad where you sit there fuming, trying to convince yourself of all the reasons why the other person was somehow more wrong than you. I’m not proud of it– that’s just my natural tendency. I promise I’ve come a long way since.

But eight years ago, that’s how I dealt with the people closest to me, like Husband. I found ways to blame and point fingers and be upset with the person who, in reality, I had probably wronged.

So there I was, sitting and stewing in my misplaced resentment. There he was, at his computer, click click clicking away on his computer game. And right there and then, I decided it was because of the computer games. The computer game was ALL WRONG. It was ALL TO DO WITH THE COMPUTER GAMES HE WAS ALWAYS PLAYING. This was the root of ALL OF OUR PROBLEMS.

And somehow, I’m good at finding reasons to support my arguments, faulty as they can be. So I sat, mentally working through imaginary arguments and coming up with all my reasons and counterarguments. Outwardly, I gave the cold shoulder, but inwardly, I fueled my little fire and simmered in that black office chair. You see, up to this point in my life, I hadn’t learned to actually communicate my feelings or share when I was feeling upset. All I knew how to do was to give the other person the cold shoulder until we could move on and act like nothing had ever happened.

(Spoiler alert: that’s a bad idea.)

My mountain of self-righteousness grew by the minute. Every mouse click added to my anger and every passing minute reinforced my determination to hold out and win this by blocking him out.

Friends, that is most definitely not God-honoring. What more would the devil want than to separate what God has put together?

But I wasn’t focused on honoring God, I was focusing on winning and being right. Because by now, I had actually managed to convince myself that I was right. Totally right, and he was wrong. I thought through every possible argument he could have and I mentally countered them. The more I thought about it, the more firmly I held onto being right: On the surface, it seems like this is my fault, but if you dig deeper, it’s really his!! 

I heard his game ending, and then I heard the sounds of normal computer stuff. I sat there, stolid and tight-lipped. I was going to punish his wrongness with the coldest shoulder I could muster. We would not talk for hours, and if he wanted to do battle with me, I was ready to win.

He tested the waters: “Jo… are you ready to talk about this?”

I coolly ignored his question and stared hard at my screen.

“Jo, did you hear me?” he said, annoyance edging into his voice. He’d seen this side of me before, and it was no picnic.

Slight eyebrow raise of acknowledgement. Continued staring: Operation Cold Shoulder was in full swing.

“Jo… do you want to talk about it later?” He seemed tired of my game.

No response from me. I was on a roll.

He was quiet for a moment. I thought he’d given up, and I bitterly imagined the next few hours of distanced silence we would endure: together, yet oceans apart.


And then he did something completely unexpected. He quietly got up, walked over to my chair, and knelt down. He knelt down, guys. Literally on his knees. Then he put his hand on my knees.

I held onto my resolve and continued to stare straight ahead. This was not part of my plan, but I was NOT going to break.

“Jo,” he started, gently. “I’m sorry.”

And then he proceeded to apologize. Like a full-on, real apology. I honestly can’t remember the details of what he said, but here’s what I know: Deep in my heart, buried beneath all that anger, I actually knew that I was in the wrong. As a matter of fact, I was very, very wrong… and he was just a little bit wrong. Between the two of us, I was probably responsible for about 90% of this problem, leaving him a mere 10%. All this time, I had been working very hard to convince myself that my percentage was lower and his higher, because that’s what defensive people do… but in my heart of hearts, I knew this wasn’t so.

And yet here he was, kneeling beside me, sincerely and thoroughly apologizing for his little bit of wrong. He didn’t demand an apology back, and he didn’t phrase things in a “Sorry but–” kind of way. It was for real.

He was owning his 10%, and it was melting my icy heart.

I sat there, listening to this man gently talk to me, but still willed myself to stay the course– stay strong, hold your ground, you are ice!

Cold shoulder - bad idea

It was the only thing I knew to do.

He should have given up. He really should have. He had every reason to… but he didn’t. He pursued me, and he pursued my heart, and at that moment, something else completely unexpected happened. Something in my heart wondered, Why are you doing this? Is this how you want your marriage to be? Is this really how you want to deal with problems in the next few decades? Show who can hold out and be icy cold longer? Build walls between you and the man you love? Go to bed angry and distant? Or do you want to follow Ben’s lead and… do whatever this is… this communicating thing.

Seriously guys, it was foreign territory for me.

So I did what I had never done before– I let my guard down and I softened my heart and I turned my shoulders to that man.

I took a deep breath. How in the world…? What was I supposed to do? I was already struggling internally to fight my pride.

“You weren’t even that wrong,” I finally said, flatly, avoiding eye contact. “So why are you apologizing?”

I know, sweet as a rose.

But it was a first step, and he knew it. He forced a smile at me and repeated his apology– just as sincere and real as the first time, and I could tell he really meant it. And suddenly, my own behavior seemed incredibly ridiculous, and my (big) part in this problem became crystal clear to me. Before I could stop it, my apology came spilling out. It wasn’t eloquent or coherent or sensible, but it was out. It came out. Of my mouth. And I meant it.

This was totally unprecedented. I didn’t see it coming at all. 

You see, that’s what happens when one person owns their 10%. Or their 5% or 1%. Or their 20% or 80%. When you really own it, no strings attached, it changes the other person’s perspective. It helps them see that this isn’t a battle between you and me. It’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong, and it’s not about winning and losing– especially if you are married! It reminds the other person that you are ON THE SAME TEAM! Cliché, but true! When you lose, we lose. When you win, WE WIN. It’s not about facing off with each other. It’s all about being side by side as a team, and turning together to face our problems in unity.

it's not about facing off with each other

Sounds good, JoEllen, but my spouse is not about to start apologizing for their 10- or 20- or 50- or 100%!

Yeah, I wasn’t going to, either. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, this isn’t about your spouse. This is about you.

Whatever the issue is, even if you’re quite certain that you are right and they are wrong, remember that that’s not the point. (I’m STILL learning this lesson, but the fact that I’ve wrestled with it so many times tells me it may be a common one.) The point is to get the ball rolling on sincere and productive communication, and one very effective way to do that is to take responsibility for your portion– however small it is.

I have since observed Ben working hard to find any itty bitty % to take responsibility for in order to initiate this conversation when we have something to work through. I’ve even asked him once, “Wow. Now it almost sounds like you’re just making up stuff to apologize for, because we BOTH KNOW that I’m in the wrong.” He always insists he’s not just reaching for apology material, and that he sincerely regrets whatever role he had in contributing to the problem… but that just humbles me about 100x more because if he can bring himself to apologize for that, then I really need to get my act together and apologize for this.

I have explained this “Own your 10%” concept to my students year after year, and it seems to have a marvelous effect on them. Students eagerly share stories of how they were able to acknowledge and own their 10% (they really call it that– it’s cute) and how the other person came around and easily apologized for their part in the end. Despite the wording, I believe that even at that young age, they understand it’s not about keeping track of percentages, but about reconciling a relationship and making things right again. It’s a good feeling, and they love it. I do, too.

Then… there are those people who don’t learn this until the grown-up stage (*cough* me *cough*), but… better late than never? The only reason I eventually learned to really apologize was because my husband initiated it by owning his small portion of the problem. It melted my stubborn heart like nothing else had before. Note that he didn’t apologize with the expectation that I was going to return the favor. A sincere apology doesn’t say, “I’m sorry. Now your turn.” It just humbly comes out, and that’s it. If the other person chooses to respond in kind, that’s great, but you can’t be sincere about it and demand reciprocation at the same time.

I don’t think even Ben knew what he was doing that fateful day when he knelt beside me and apologized, but it has really changed the course of our marriage. If there is a riff between you and someone else, be it a friend, parent, co-worker, child, or spouse, consider your role in the problem. Even if you’re pretty sure 99% of it isn’t your fault, search hard and try to find the 1% or 10% that you can sincerely take responsibility for. By genuinely apologizing and owning your small portion, you can initiate steps toward reconciliation and restored relationships.

22 responses to “On Relationships: Own Your 10%”

  1. Dakota says:

    Ooooh, yeah. This is me. I have some reasons rooted in childhood that sort of drive it, but we all know that’s an excuse for a tendency. 😛

    I love this one. I think we’re both stubborn apologizers in my household, and of course, that doesn’t make things any easier!

    • joellen says:

      Haha I honestly can’t even think of a time I really truly apologized (something other than, “…Sorry.”) before I married this guy, let alone being stubborn about it. But when we had conflict, I hated the coldness and distance so much that I knew something had to give. Sigh. It’s still hard, but I’ve never regretted it!

  2. Julie says:

    You have persevered to learn a great deal, and I know you would say you are still learning – me, too, and me, too. But what I love is how very honest and clear and funny you are when you write about these things. You are a breath of fresh air – no jargon, no froofy lines like “That really resonates with me.”, no sugary stuff. I feel like I know you because your voice is so real. Thanks very much.

    • joellen says:

      Thanks, Julie! That is such a heartfelt and sweet compliment! Sometimes my straightforwardness gets me in trouble, but I’m glad it can be refreshing, too haha :). Thank you for reading, Julie!

  3. Diana Tao says:

    wow, what a sweet story! i’m learning in couples/pre-marital classes to always try to be the first person who apologizes. this story is a very good example of that. i love your real and non-fiction stories, Jo! please keep them coming!!

    • joellen says:

      I really enjoyed some of our premarital counseling sessions, and really think they paved the way for a great marriage. I’m so glad you guys are investing in that early on! Thanks so much for your encouragement and for reading! 😀

  4. Florence says:

    :'( Ok… *sigh* …I’ll try. :’)

  5. Hanna says:

    Thank you for sharing this. It came at exactly the right moment. What a beautifully heartfelt reminder to take responsibility for your piece of any conflict, no matter the size.