“I have said I am sorry. How many times do I have to say it?”
Does this sound familiar? And often either the husband or the wife is the “usual” one to come back and apologize for some infraction, argument, tone of voice, or conflict.
And often the one who is “apologizing” is not quite sure exactly what he/she has done wrong. They just know that it feels horrible and their spouse is still angry or perhaps not talking to them. The goal is to somehow feel some sense of connection and closeness again – no matter how brief or superficial.
But why do these apologies often not seem to have the impact that we desire? What are we doing wrong?
Here are five mistakes that we often make when we try to apologize. Somehow what we say or how we say it seems to push our spouse away.
Mistake #1: I am sorry, but . . . .
This is the most common mistake. Often our apology is heartfelt. We really are sorry! As soon as we had the word “but,” though, the impact of the apology evaporates.
What is our motivation for saying “but”?
In most cases, we want our spouse to understand that hurting them or making them angry was not our intent. We did not wake up this morning trying to decide how to best push their button today until we finally had the chance. Of course not! We want them to understand this.
However, the message that is received from our spouse is “I am sorry. And because that was not my intent to hurt you, you should not be angry.” In other words, since my intent was not there, you should not let it affect you. So now that I have apologized and explained myself, if you stay angry with me, YOU have the problem.
See the issue?
Mistake #2: I am sorry. What I meant to say was . . . .
This is similar to Mistake #1. We want to explain to our spouse what we should have said. The apology doesn’t have time to sink in. We are not even recognizing that they were affected because of what we did or said.
Mistake #3: I am sorry that I said/did that, but I was only reacting to what you said earlier/yesterday/last week.
The message we are sending is “It is your fault that I said/did that.” If only you had been kind to me, then I never would have done something that I now feel obligated to apologize for.
Mistake #4: I am sorry if I offended you, or . . .
I am sorry that you took that wrong, or . . .
I am sorry that you became angry.
The message we are sending here is, “You are the one with the problem. You were offended, you took it wrong, you became angry. So it is your fault. What I said or did should be OK.”
Mistake #5: I am so sorry. (Pause of several seconds/minutes/hours.) Can we move on now? Can you not be mad at me anymore?
This leaves the impression that we do not really care about what we did or how it affected our spouse. We simply want them to move on (like we want to). We want to pretend that it did not happen.
So how can my apology be accepted by my spouse?
Address the Action or Words that Specifically Affected Your Spouse
Do not generalize. You have hurt or offended your spouse, so anything less than admitting the specific offense is in some ways cowardly. What if they are hurt or angry because of something entirely different?
Before you talk to your spouse, write down a concise description of the words, actions (or lack thereof) for which you are apologizing. By forcing yourself to take the time to put it in writing, it helps you to be more specific and provides clarity for you, even before you speak with your spouse.
Avoid the Words “If, but, maybe, because you…”
This is hard to do. Especially if we are “only 10% at fault” and our spouse might have contributed to the situation. Our natural inclination, even when we apologize, is to justify and defend ourselves. But any indication that we are “reacting” to our spouse (so it is their fault), deflecting the blame or we are trying to share the blame will nullify any sincerity that we have.
You might even try and practice what you plan to say before the conversation. You will probably catch yourself in using one of these words. They come so naturally!
Acknowledge the Hurt
This may be the most important and most difficult step. How often have you said “I’m sorry,” but it did not come across as meaningful? Usually because our motivation is that we feel bad (often our spouse is mad at us!), and we want to feel better. We just want to “get through this” as quickly as possible with as little pain as possible. In fact, we need to do just the opposite: We need to focus on how our spouse is hurting, even if that hurt is appearing as anger (often a very intense anger).
Unless we take the time to put ourselves in their place, to try and experience the hurt that we have caused, our apology will simply fall on deaf ears. And we deserve it when they reject our “sincere” apology. True sincerity only comes when we not only acknowledge their hurt, but also join them in it.
Ask for Forgiveness
This is a little different from simply offering an apology. By asking forgiveness, we are putting ourselves in a vulnerable position. We are hoping for an acceptance, but our spouse now has the option to turn us down. Which is why we must have no expectations that our request for forgiveness will be accepted. That is our hope, but not our expectation.
The Response May not be What You Hope for
So now we have identified and admitted the specific wrong, not justified our words or actions, and tried to experience the hurt with them. So we should expect them to forgive us immediately and everything will be wonderful. Right? Wrong!!
Some people simply need time to heal – to “get over it.” If the wrong has occurred numerous times, they may need some space alone before they decide how sincere our apology has been.
We are the ones who have wronged our spouse. The key is to have no expectations of what the response might be. If we have no expectations, then we will not be disappointed. This will prevent us from reacting in anger when we do not receive a smile and an offer of forgiveness.
If our request for forgiveness is refused, then the difficult task of providing grace with patience is the next journey for us to travel.
Alter Your Behavior
This is the ONLY WAY to convince our spouse that our apology was sincere, and we desire to change. We are offering proof that demonstrates to our spouse how serious we are about our relationship. It also shows by actions that we are truly sorry for the pain we have caused.