The way you apologize after hurting your loved one determines whether healing will occur or hurtful feelings will fester.
At one of my couples weekend workshop in Colorado, Emma and Noah* discussed their inability to forgive and make repairs as an on-going area of contention in their marriage.
Emma: I know I hold grudges and I’m not proud of it. He says he’s sorry, but I don’t believe him. So, I keep my distance from him. Why should I allow myself to get close when he’s so uncaring?
Noah: I’m not perfect and I’ll admit my mistakes. I tell her I’m sorry over and over, but she doesn’t want to hear it. She usually cuts off communication for a long time. Her bad temperament makes me feel less like trying to make things right.
Emma and Noah’s experience is commonplace. What constitutes a “real” apology? How can it lead to healing in a relationship?
Research shows successful relationships know how to offer “real” apologies. Here are five characteristics of what a genuine, meaningful apology looks and sounds like :
1. Show accountability: The offending person accepts full responsibility for actions or words without blaming others or circumstances, nor making excuses. Words like “I didn’t mean to” and “It wasn’t my intention” are ways of letting yourself off the hook and remaining “innocent” in your own eyes.
Rather than helping your spouse or partner feel better, such words often makes things worse. Those statements insinuate “since you didn’t mean to hurt you, you shouldn’t be hurt.”
That would be analogous to a pedestrian being accidentally run over by a car, but not being injured nor needing to heal because the driver of the car “didn’t mean to” hit him.
We must apologize for accidents as well as purposeful injuries. Both are hurtful and require healing.
Sometimes, especially with bigger offenses, taking responsibility means being willing to witness the pain you’ve caused. You may have to listen to your partner’s pain, anger, indignation, or point of view before you can offer up an apology that seems sincere. At times, this witnessing may need to be repeated over time, with patience, as the wound heals.
2. Validate your partner’s feelings: Never tell your partner that his or her perspective is wrong and “could not possibly be true” because it contradicts your own point of view. This discredits your apology. In fact, the process of validating each other’s feelings and experiences – even simply nodding your head in agreement –affects your relationship in an incredibly positive way. Remember, each person’s perspective is their truth.
3. Express your feelings: Tell your partner that it matters to you that you hurt him or her. How does witnessing your spouse’s pain make you feel right now? Sad, disappointed, guilty, scared, regretful? Your partner needs to see and hear that you are affected; that you feel enough pain and remorse to avoid repeating the hurtful action.
4. Offer Reassurance: Tell your husband, wife or partner how it’s going to be different in the future. What will change?
When you apologize, your partner is wondering, “If I forgive you, will you just take that as permission to hurt me again in the same way tomorrow?” Discussing how and what you will do differently next time helps your loved one believe that continuing the relationship with you is a worthwhile risk.
5. Offer up a repair or amends: Actively show you are willing to expend your time and energy to make things better for your spouse. If you don’t know how, ask your partner: “What can I do to make things better?”
Be willing to work to re-earn the trust that has been damaged or broken by your offending actions or words. If you both have mutual interest in preserving the relationship, chances are good that your spouse will offer helpful suggestions.
After learning these fundamentals of an apology, Emma and Noah expressed hope for their future, and were excited to begin the process of making amends, apologies and repairs. I spoke with them a year after the couples workshop. They said they could not remember the last time either one had enacted the silent treatment or held a grudge. The process of apologizing after an argument, they said, brought them closer as a couple and strengthened their relationship.
According to marriage expert Dr. John Gottman, we miss the target far more often than we hit it. As imperfect humans, we miscommunicate, misinterpret, misspeak and mishear. Since missing is the norm, our ability to make repairs is critical to making and keeping our valued relationships. A “real” apology goes a long way towards doing just that.