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Making Friends With the Apology

Second in a series on good couple communication. The first installment can be found here.

No, I don’t mean “Go around apologizing a lot so people will like you.” I mean, “Stop being afraid of apologizing and learn to do it well.”

It’s certain that, from time to time, you are going to do or say something insensitive, false, offensive, or injurious to your spouse. Of course, it’s important to try to be kind, truthful and supportive in everything you say and do, but if you’re always successful, you may skip the rest of this post. The rest of us screw up from time to time.

Let’s say you have just offended your husband or wife. Your first impulse when confronted may be to try to defend and explain. Please bite your tongue long enough to consider this: no matter whether or not you were technically right, the biggest problem now is the rupture in your relationship. A discussion about whose point of view is supported by the most evidence, or whether your emotions justified your actions, will make the conversation more heated and much, much longer.

What should you do instead?

  • Ask questions in order to understand your spouse’s perspective. No matter what you were trying to accomplish, you need to learn how it was heard and received.
  • Pick your time and place. The moment when your spouse is trying to diaper a colicky baby is probably not a good time. Find some quiet and calm if possible. And another note on timing: If you are trying to insert your apology as quickly as possible so your spouse will stop talking about how hurt they were, see that for what it is — a desire to manage your own discomfort. He or she may need to be heard for a while.
  • Take appropriate responsibility. An apology with an excuse is no apology. If you did something, say so. If you were wrong or insensitive, say so. Flat out. (If you are considering apologizing for something that was <i>not</i> wrong or that you didn’t do, you may be in the habit of apologizing simply to keep the peace in a stressful environment. These tips are not for you. Please consider consulting someone wise if this is a pattern in your life.)
  • Apologize for the action, not its effect. “I’m sorry you found that offensive” is akin to saying “I’m sorry you’re so oversensitive, but I’ll be my patient self until you fix that.” Do. Not. Go. Down. That. Road.
  • Ask for forgiveness. Some couples find asking for and granting forgiveness a bit artificial and forced. But many who do make it a part of their interactions with one another find that it can build their bond with one another. Asking forgiveness is a gift — you request but don’t demand the restoration of good will. Offering forgiveness is mercy — you agree to be fully reconciled, leaving the wrongdoing in the past.

– Roz Dieterich, LMSW

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