The Importance of Apologizing
There are two little words that can go a long way to saving your marriage and keeping it healthy and happy for years to come. Those words are: “I’m sorry.”
I can’t tell you how many couples I have seen that have a problem with apologizing. People often get so caught up in their own way of seeing things that they can’t even muster an apology for simple offenses like leaving the cap off the toothpaste or forgetting to take out the garbage.
Unfortunately it seems that apologizing only becomes that much more difficult as problems get more sophisticated. A forgotten birthday or anniversary, hurtful words said in the heat of an argument, or a late night out with friends when you promised to be home for your family are all events that deserve a full and authentic apology. However, a lot of people react with defensiveness and anger instead of apologizing for situations like these.
I think that part of the reason people have such a hard time apologizing is because they equate the words “I’m sorry” with “I’m a rotten person” or “You’re better than I am.” But that isn’t what the words “I’m sorry” mean at all.
When you say “I’m sorry,” what you are doing is taking responsibility for something you did that hurt your partner. You’re showing that you realize what you did was hurtful, and communicating to your partner that you care about him or her enough to amend your actions so as not to cause the same problem again. You are not submitting to the idea that you are “less than. . .”.
People make mistakes. We all do. Sometimes the need for an apology is the result of a mistake. Sometimes we even make mistakes that hurt the people around us.
Other behaviors that need an apology might be the result of poor judgment. This is a situation where you intentionally (not by mistake) did something wrong because you made a bad choice. Examples include extra-marital affections, staying out too late with your friends, coming home drunk, and driving yourself, your spouse, or your children when you are under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Often, these poor judgment calls like these hurt the people around us.
When you do something that needs an apology, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are a wretched person. Doing something wrong doesn’t make you a wrong person. It only means you took some action that you have to make amends for. You did something wrong, and now you need to deal with it.
In addition to this it could mean that there are areas of your personality or character that you need to work on. Egregious mistakes (like having an affair) or mistakes that you make over an over again (like consistently forgetting important events) mean you need to take some additional steps to rectify the parts of your character that created the possibility for these mistakes in the first place.
Even in these cases, it doesn’t mean you are an “evil” person. Rather, it means there are some areas you will likely need to make real changes in if you are going to live the kind of life you most want to live, and create a wonderful relationship with your spouse.
Whatever the case, when you hurt your partner, the very first thing you need to do is admit that you did something wrong and apologize for it.
Different situations require different kinds of apologies. Obviously, having an affair deserves a different kind of apology than leaving the cap off the toothpaste. As such, I can’t cover in this article all of the details of how to apologize for every offense.
Nonetheless, I would like to offer you a few suggestions on how to apologize for relatively minor offenses so you can start using apologies in your marriage today to show your partner you care and stay out of some unnecessary arguments.
For a fuller treatment of what kind of apology is needed when you have had an affair (or engaged in other extremely hurtful behavior) I refer you to my book Surviving an Affair. In the meantime, here are tips that will help you start apologizing for some mistakes that most couples face.
Tip #1: Admit What You Did Was Wrong
When you do something wrong in your marriage and you know it, it’s better to admit it, apologize, and move on. If you deny you did something wrong, act like you were justified in your actions, or otherwise defer responsibility for what you did, you are only setting yourself up for more trouble in the long run.
Just make a simple admission of the being wrong. Don’t defer responsibility, and don’t defend your actions. Openly and maturely admit what you did was wrong.
For example, let’s say Joe forgot that his wife, Sally, said she was going to have dinner ready for him when he got home from work. As a result he decided to go out for a drink with some colleagues from work instead of going home for dinner.
In this kind of situation Joe would want to avoid saying something like:
You know, you didn’t tell me you were going to cook me dinner. And even if you did, how can you expect me to remember anything you tell me when I’m on my way out the door? What’s so special about dinner, anyway? It’s just food. You’re being too picky. Just leave me alone about it, already.
It would be much more meaningful if he said something like:
You’re right. You asked me to be home for dinner and I totally forgot. I’m really sorry about that. I should have called home before I chose to go out for a drink anyway. That way you could have reminded me that we had dinner plans. I’m sorry I ruined your plans, and I’m sorry I hurt you.
And, if Joe truly does not remember Sally telling him in the morning, he would just omit the first sentence.
As you can see, the first response is filled with defensive justification It minimizes the importance of what Joe did and minimizes Sally’s feelings. Another variation would be for Joe to somehow make it Sally’s fault that he forgot their dinner plans.
On the other hand, the second response is a full admission that Joe did something wrong. In it he admits what he did was wrong, he says he’s sorry, and he expresses regret for hurting his partner’s feelings.
When you admit that you have done something wrong, you are communicating important information to your partner. You are telling your spouse that you care enough about his or her feelings to accept that what you did was hurtful, and you are telling him or her that you intend to be more conscious about these kinds of actions in the future.
In short, you show that you care about your partner’s feelings. That’s an important component of a good marriage.
Tip #2: Drop the Defensiveness
Apologies are as good as dead if they are stated in a defensive manner. When you adopt a defensive tone of voice, use physical mannerisms that are defensive, or if the words you use are meant to defend your case rather than admit your mistake, you aren’t making a real apology.
In fact, using the words “I’m sorry” with a defensive tone of voice is worse than not apologizing at all. It turns the entire apology into an invitation for resentment and hurt feelings.
Consider the following example:
What do you want from me? You want an apology? Fine, I’m sorry! Is that good enough for you?
What kind of response would you expect from this kind of apology? It’s pretty obvious that all it would do is create more hostility and frustration for everyone involved.
A better apology would sound something more like this:
I’m sorry for what I did. It was wrong, and I know that I hurt you. I never want to hurt you, and I truly feel bad for what I did. I know how I got myself into that situation and I will do my best to keep that from happening again.
As you can see, eliminating the defensive tone goes a long way toward making the apology more sincere. It reduces the possibility for additional hurt feelings, and opens a gateway for you to move past this issue toward a happier future. In most situations, an authentic and complete apology will also diffuse the other person’s anger.
Tip #3: Don’t Be Demeaning
When you are apologizing to your partner you should avoid demeaning his or her feelings. It may be that you won’t completely understand why your partner is hurt; however, it isn’t for you to decide whether or not your partner’s emotional response to your words or actions are justified. You don’t get to determine whether or not your partner “deserves” to be as hurt as he or she is. The hurt feelings exist. You helped create them. Now you have to deal with them.
Let’s look at an example. Imagine for a moment that Carl and Allison are working on repairing some problems in their marriage. Part of the problem they are facing is that Carl has a hard time communicating his feelings to Allison. He’s been doing a lot of work on his communication skills, but Allison still doesn’t feel she understands Carl very well.
At one point Allison says, “Carl, you just can’t communicate at all! I mean, I don’t understand what you’re talking about here.”
Carl’s feelings are really hurt by this statement. He’s been working hard to learn how to communicate better, and this statement from Allison totally blows him out of the water.
As a result he says, “Wow Allison. That really hurts. I mean, I’ve been working on these communication skills, and when you tell me that, it makes me feel like I’m just making no progress at all.”
Given this scenario, let’s imagine two different “apologies” from Allison and determine which one is going to be more meaningful.
First let’s look at a demeaning apology. Let’s imagine that Allison says something like:
Good grief! You’re completely overreacting. I mean, I can’t believe you’d get upset over something like that. I’m sorry. I should never have said anything I guess. You don’t know anything about feelings!
Now, I don’t consider this an apology. Though the words “I’m sorry” are contained in the statement, the feeling is demeaning. It fails to take into account Carl’s feelings. And perhaps worst of all, it’s likely to simply shut down Carl’s attempts at
On the other hand, Allison could say something like:
Gee Carl, I’m really sorry my words hurt you. I don’t completely understand why my words hurt you, but I believe you when you tell me they did. Please tell me more so I understand what I did so I won’t do it again.
This apology is completely different. It communicates Allison’s inability to understand exactly why Carl is hurt, but it still takes his feelings into account. It isn’t demeaning. On the contrary, it opens up the possibility for further communication about the issue at hand.
Apologizing when you’ve done something wrong is one of the keys to a long-term marriage. Just saying the words “I’m sorry” when you’ve done something to hurt your spouse is a step in the right direction, but it’s usually not enough.
The tips in this article should help you take the apology a step further, and help you on your road to a relationship that is better than ever.
Let me know how it goes with you. I’d love to hear about your marriage. Post a comment to this blog by clicking the comment link below..
As always I wish you all the best on your road to a wonderful marriage.
Frank Gunzburg, Ph.D.