Have you noticed that we can be the most reactive with the people closest to us? Sometimes it seems we save our worst behaviour, as well as our best, for our partners. So being able to apologize is essential to the well-being of our relationship.
Having said that, I might add that it's not always easy. Even as I was writing this newsletter, my husband and I had a a testy moment which could have been solved with a quick apology. Instead, we each got defensive and the situation escalated. Eventually we both got to an apology -- however I was humbled by how challenging it can be to “walk my talk”.
I offer this article with an invitation: to experiment with apologizing more quickly and freely – and to be compassionate with yourself and each other, if you find it to be a challenge!
Here’s to the power of an apology,
Something to think about
Apologizing does not always mean that you are wrong and the other person is right. It just means that you value your relationship more than your ego.
Apologizing is a skill
How skilled are you at apologizing? Do you do it easily and quickly? Or are you someone who prides yourself on never apologizing for anything that you say or do?
I think the ability to say "I'm sorry" is one of the most useful and healing skills in any relationship. There are so many little ways that we wound those we love on a day-to-day basis: With a sarcastic tone. With an angry snap. Rebuffing an overture of affection. Forgetting something important. While these aren’t fatal wounds, they certainly affect the quality of our relationships – and these small cuts, if left to fester, eventually accumulate into bigger injuries.
An apology -- sincerely given -- can be the first step to getting things back onto a loving track. An apology is an ownership of responsibility for the impact of my actions on another. It’s a demonstration of care and empathy. And it serves as the salve that can heal the wound that my words or actions may have caused – whether or not I intended to do harm.
Restoring the interpersonal bond
I really learned the power of an apology when my children were little. When my temper sometimes frayed and I spoke too harshly or pulled a little arm impatiently, I was so grateful for the ability to apologize. I couldn’t undo the actions that fell short of my own parenting standards. However I could acknowledge that Mommy had “lost it”, that I had behaved in a way that wasn’t kind or fair, and that I was sorry.
An apology helped me take the first step of re-establishing our interpersonal bond and it helped me to make peace with myself. This gave my children a chance to express themselves too – and I was always amazed at how forgiving they usually were! Young children rarely hold a grudge and hence they return to a state of happiness very quickly.
Why we don’t like to apologize
Given the healing potential of an apology, why is it sometimes so difficult to make?
Many of us are reluctant to say we're sorry because:
- We don’t think we did anything wrong.
- We judge the other person as being “too sensitive”.
- We know we did do something hurtful, however we don’t want to admit it – it feels too vulnerable.
- We didn’t intend to cause any hurt, so we don’t think we should be held responsible for the fact that someone felt hurt.
- We did what we felt was right, so why should we apologize?
- We don’t want to be feel judged.
- We don’t want to feel “bad” or ashamed.
- We think our interpretation of what really happened is “right” and the other person’s is “wrong”.
- And any number of other reasons you can think of!
You don’t have to be wrong to apologize
We rarely set out to hurt others. Because another is feeling hurt doesn’t mean than we are wrong. However our behaviour may have an unexpected impact on those we love. It may trigger hurt in them. (Like the times when I feel stressed and use a critical, angry tone of voice with my husband. Or the times that he feels anxious and raises his voice impatiently with me.)
When hurt happens, our partner needs to know that we hear them, that we care and that we are sorry that our behaviour has resulted in them feeling hurt. They are not wrong for feeling the way they do! And we don’t have to be wrong to apologize or express regret that they are upset.
You can say "ouch"
Sometimes we fail to apologize because we don’t actually know that our words or actions have been hurtful. Awhile back I realized that when my feelings are hurt by something my husband has said or done, I tend to lash back sarcastically. (It’s very common to get angry or defensive as a cover-up for hurt.) When I do that, my husband doesn’t know I feel hurt, because all he sees is the anger. And then he tends to get angry or defensive in response – and away we go!
So we have come up with a short-hand way to communicate that we feel hurt by something the other did or said. We simply say “ouch”. That lets the other person know that their comment was hurtful – without getting angry in response. When I am upset, a simple “ouch” is good, as I may not be able to say much more.
We have another agreement. There’s no arguing with another person’s “ouch”. I am an authority on whether or not something feels hurtful to me – and my husband has the final say on what is hurtful to him.
Once we realize that we’ve hurt the other (whether intended or not – and usually it’s unintentional) then it’s a very natural thing to offer an apology. Because the truth is that we don’t want to hurt one another. And I think this is true in most relationships.
It’s OK to ask
I have also learned that I can ASK for an apology -- if it's not immediately forthcoming – and so can my husband. Even an apology that I’ve asked for has a healing effect!
What if I can't?
If I find myself unwilling to apologize (even knowing that my husband is hurting) then it’s a good clue that I am busy being “right” about the situation – or justifying my behaviour – or nursing some kind of resentment that predates the current situation (which I may need to talk about eventually).
The focus of an apology isn’t who’s “right”. The focus of an apology is an acknowledgement that someone hurts and a statement that I regret they are hurting as a result of my behaviour. Expressing our hurt and resolving it with an apology is SO much more satisfying than arguing over who is “right”. However it takes some conscious intention, because arguing over who is right is often the automatic response.
What a gift
Given that we are humans who make mistakes -- and given that we can’t change what is done -- our ability to apologize is a huge gift to us and to our relationships. A sincere apology offers the possibility of healing and the opportunity of starting over with a clean slate. When coupled with forgiveness, an apology has the potential to transform your relationship, on a moment-by-moment basis.
Invitation to action:
The next time your partner expresses hurt regarding something you’ve done, resist the urge to argue or defend. Listen carefully to their feelings and consider whether an apology might be in order. If it is, then do it!
If you’d like more practical tips about apologizing, especially if you’re dealing with a big breakdown in trust, there are some wonderful online articles that treat the topic in greater depth. When the wounding is large, then greater time and attention to the process is needed. I particularly recommend:
How to give a meaningful apology by Beverly Engel. She outlines the 3 R’s of an apology: Regret, Responsibility and Remedy.
How to apologize: asking for forgiveness gracefully by Ruth Hill and the Mindtools team.
How to apologize on wikihow.
Check out this wonderful and touching video of an young engaged couple. They decide to get a taste of growing old together, by having make-up artists show them what they will look like at 50, 70 and 90 years old. Their experience is heart-warming!
Shirley Vollett BSW PCC is a Life and Relationship Coach, with over 25 years of combined experience in counselling and coaching. She delights in helping pro-active individuals make positive changes in their lives, their work and their relationships. Her Conscious Dating Program helps single and divorced individuals improve their relationship skills, avoid past mistakes and make healthy dating and relationship choices. Contact Shirley for a complimentary intro phone session. If you are experiencing a challenge or are eager to make some changes, explore how coaching works and how she can help. Visit her website.