By Terry Gaspard, LICSW
There are many reasons why you or your partner may have difficulty apologizing to one another. For instance, you might equate apologizing with weakness and it’s widely believed that if you apologize to someone, you’re making yourself too vulnerable. Further, you might stubbornly hold onto the belief that you have nothing to apologize for – especially if your hurtful behavior or words were not intentional. Meanwhile, your partner may be suffering and you’re preventing healing and reconciliation from taking place.
However, apologizing can also be seen as a strength because it shows you are able to show goodwill toward your partner and it promotes love and understanding. Studies demonstrate the importance of forgiving someone so you can let go of your baggage, heal from past wounds, and enjoy a better quality of life. Apologizing and practicing forgiveness is about giving yourself and your partner the kind of future you and they deserve.
Sincere Apologies Have Healing Power
When Kevin, 45, and Jana, 46, argue about his tendency to overspend on items they don’t need, their fights get intense and harsh words are often exchanged. For a few years, they didn’t understand the importance of repairing hurt feelings and so apologies weren’t part of their dialogue.
One day, when Kevin was heading out to work and they were arguing, he accused Jana of being controlling about money and yelled at her. When he waited to apologize two days later, he said, “I’m sorry you’re upset about my spending habits” which came across as insincere and made Jana feel frustrated and angry. As a result, she carried around resentment for several days and it created emotional distance between them.
In this situation, Kevin’s apology didn’t have the effect he was looking for and perhaps made matters worse. If you do apologize to your partner, be sure to do it in the right way that doesn’t include excuses for your actions or words. It also shouldn’t focus on your partner’s feelings or reaction as Kevin’s did when he said “I’m sorry you’re upset about my spending habits.” This type of apology doesn’t promote healing because the person who has done the regrettable behavior isn’t taking responsibility for their behavior. As a result, they aren’t making an effort to make amends or change their behavior.
While not all apologies will be the same, most will contain some important elements. Offering an apology isn’t about proving a point or explaining your regrettable actions. When you give a genuine apology, you acknowledge your flaws – the things that make you human and authentic. You also show compassion for the pain you caused your partner and a willingness to make amends.
How Do I Give a Genuine Apology?
Perhaps the first step in offering your partner a sincere apology is saying you’re sorry and meaning it. Experts believe that apologizing and forgiving your partner can allow you to break the cycle of pain, move on with your life, and embrace a healthier relationship. However, healing from regrettable actions takes time and has a lot to do with letting go of those things you have no control over. This includes your partner’s reaction to your apology. It may take them time to truly accept it and regain loving feelings.
- Effective ways to apologize to your partner:
- Identify two reasons you feel sorry for the hurt that your behavior or words caused your partner. Gaining awareness of the emotions you experience about your own past hurt can help you feel empathy for your partner. Ask yourself: why did I feel the need to behave in a way that caused my partner pain or upset? Was my behavior intentional?
- Accept responsibility for your hurtful actions or words and the damage you caused. Acknowledge that you messed up by saying something like “I take responsibility for my actions and I’m sorry that they hurt you.” One person’s ability to do this can change the dynamic of the relationship and help you recover and heal as a couple.
- Use the words “I am sorry” and “I was wrong” when you apologize and make it personal. Your apology will more likely be heard and accepted if you use these words. Be specific about exactly what you did to hurt, humiliate, or embarrass your partner. For example, “I’m sorry for hurting you and violating your trust. I was wrong when I put you down in front of your sister and I am sorry for my unkind words.”
- Explain to your partner how you plan to repair the situation. For example, if you said something to hurt your in-laws’ feelings, you might offer to apologize to him or her over coffee or by writing them a note.
- Describe what you said or did in specific terms without making excuses or blaming your mate or someone else. Using “I” statements rather than “You” statements can help you avoid the blame monster. For instance, you might say “I’m sorry for not telling you when I bought a new phone, it won’t happen again.” This is more effective than saying, “You never let me buy anything, so why should I tell you what I purchase?”
- Ask your partner to grant you forgiveness. Be specific about your actions and words that need to be forgiven. Be sure to do so when the setting is conducive to a private conversation and there aren’t any distractions (TV, cell phones, children in the room, etc.).
Heartfelt apologies are an essential ingredient of a strong, healthy relationship. Accepting that you and your partner do the best you can will help you be more understanding. When you acknowledge your flaws, it means that you can be vulnerable with your partner rather than allowing your fear of rejection or failure to overwhelm you.
Keep in mind that granting your partner forgiveness is not letting him or her off the hook. It doesn’t mean you approve of their actions. But by showing compassion toward your partner when you feel they’ve wronged you, you let go of your anger, bitterness, and resentment. In doing so, you give them less power over you. You’re letting him or her know your relationship matters and you’re giving them the benefit of the doubt. And, by asking for forgiveness, you show that you’re aware when your actions or words have been hurtful and you’re able to be vulnerable enough to give a genuine apology.
Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com. Her book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website.
Terry’s new book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, was be published by Sounds True in February of 2020.