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Anatomy of an Apology

Never apologize Mister . . . it’s a sign of weakness. – John Wayne

Having a spouse that is unwilling to apologize is a very common complaint voiced by clients with fractured relationships they hope to repair in counseling. After sharing the list of wrongs they have experienced the follow up sentence is often “and they never even said they were sorry.” While an apology isn’t mandatory for us to forgive, it is human nature to want the person who wronged us to acknowledge the hurt they have caused and ask for our forgiveness. So why do some people have such a strong aversion to saying “sorry”?

There are probably some John Wayne types who believe apologizing weakens their position in the relationship, but they are the minority. I have found most people who resist giving apologies do so because they have learned over time that apologies (a) don’t work, and (b) can even restart the same battle they are trying to apologize for. No wonder they are reluctant to seek forgiveness. They choose instead to brush it under the rug and hope time will repair the damage. Of course, this method rarely works as well as we’d like. The next hurt will often open up the old wounds along with the new because the relationship did not truly heal. The challenge here is to show that a well crafted apology (a) will be accepted, and (b) will signal that the battle is over and healing can begin immediately.

Let’s take a look at a hypothetical situation and three possible apologies –

John had a particularly bad day at work. On the way home he stopped and bought a pizza thinking that at least he and his wife, Jane, would be able to skip the usual chaos of trying to prepare dinner before starting in on the routine of helping the kids with homework and getting them ready for bed. When he walks in the door Jane sees the pizza and remarks, “Oh, I already have dinner almost done. I wish you would have called me before picking something up.” At this point John looses his cool and snarls angrily, “Would it KILL you to just appreciate anything I ever do for this family?” He may even throw in an expletive or two.

Jane is stunned and hurt by John’s outburst. The next hour is filled with an uncomfortable silence and tension that causes John to consider his actions and decide that an apology is needed. As you read through the different apologies think how you might react if you were in Jane’s shoes. Which of the three would be most likely to cause you to forgive John?

1. I don’t know why you are so mad at me. I was just trying to do something nice and you threw it in my face. Plus I had a bad day at the office and I really snapped when you didn’t appreciate what I did. So, I am sorry I yelled at you. Can we just drop this now?

2. I’m sorry I brought home the pizza without calling you first. Obviously I am just an incompetent husband. I must be such a disappointment to you. I know now that it was a mistake and I won’t ever bring dinner home again.

3. I know it was wrong of me to speak to you in such a disrespectful way. I’m sorry I hurt your feelings with my rude behavior.

In all three attempts at an apology John uses the phrase “I’m sorry” but each one is likely to get a very different reaction from Jane. The first apology is given in the form of an excuse. When John lists his reasons for barking at Jane in the middle of his apology he is really saying that the verbal abuse was justified. This will prompt Jane to argue her point of view and the battle will resume. The second apology uses self loathing to garner sympathy. When John makes a dramatic show of putting himself down in the middle of the apology what he is really saying is that calling him on his outburst is more than his self esteem can handle, so Jane is a bad person for showing her displeasure. This will cause Jane to grow even more distant because she will resent the fact that John was rude to her and now she is the one being punished for it. In the third apology John takes responsibility for his actions, acknowledges that he was in the wrong, and apologizes. He has said nothing that Jane disagrees with so it is unlikely to reignite the argument. He also did not push any of the blame over to her so she is unlikely to feel resentment. And, by keeping it short and simple he has given her time to consider his apology and hopefully determine that forgiveness is the best option.

An apology should be made in three simple steps:

1. Admit that what you said/did was wrong.
2. State that you are sorry for your actions.
3. Stop talking and give them space.

Whether it’s your spouse who struggles, or you that just can’t bring yourself to apologize, I recommend using the formula above next time an apology is in order. You will be surprised at how quickly the tension fades and how completely the relationship heals when a simple apology is made and accepted.


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