Michelle Wangler Joy, MFT

oops-road-sign-225 You messed up.  You really blew it.  Your partner is giving you heck about it, seething with disappointment and hurt.  Guilt washes over you, as your conscious mind reminds you that you didn’t keep your word or your end of a commitment.  Or you might have a more flippant attitude, “What’s the big deal anyway? Get over it!”

If you sometimes feel like it’s easier to put your head in the sand and go passive, defend yourself, or dismiss or deny your partner’s perspective when you screw up, you are not alone.

What more does your partner want from you anyway?  You said you were sorry and that should be enough. Now we can move on, right?

Nope.

Your partner wants you to really understand how your blunder affected them. If you understand, and can even offer some empathetic words, it opens up the possibility for your partner to feel soothed, calmer, and more connected to you. It can also help him or her let go of the pain that your blunder caused.

Recognizing where your partner is coming from means asking them questions in a non-defensive manner, so that you can better understand the situation. Only then can a true apology be made.

But of course if it were that easy, resentments would not exist, and all of those books on forgiveness would not be flying off the shelves.

In my work with couples, I notice a few myths that get in the way of true apologies.

Myth #1: If I disagree with my partner’s feelings, I’m entitled to defend myself.

If your partner is hurt by something you did, they are right. It’s how they experienced something; it already happened and you can’t go back in time.  Resist getting caught up in trying to change how they felt by saying things like, “Oh come on, it wasn’t that bad.” Or, “Why are you making such a big deal out of this?” It may be legitimate that it wasn’t your intention to cause that feeling in them, but you can’t change how they felt.

Myth #2: If I apologize to my partner, that means I agree with what they are accusing me of. 

Apologizing is not about accepting blame for something. It’s about acknowledging and responding to your partner’s emotional pain, regardless of how guilty or innocent you deem yourself in the situation.

Myth #3: If I acknowledge my partner’s pain, I am being a doormat.

Quite adversely, it takes a lot of strength to stay steady, really listen to your partner, ask them curious questions, and put yourself in their shoes.

Myth #4: If I apologize, my side of the story will not be heard and I will forever be misunderstood.

When your partner has been heard and is in a space to listen, you can share what was going on for you at the time. However, there is a big difference between explaining yourself to justify the situation, make an excuse or give yourself a “get out of jail free” card – verses explaining your thought process and exploring where any misunderstanding may have occurred.

Myth #5: If I say I’m sorry, I did my part. 

If the relationship is one you care about, you will benefit from taking a few more steps. Usually your partner will feel the benefit of your apology when you understand the content of the blunder and the unpleasant feelings that it caused, and you have a collaborative plan to prevent it from happening again.

If you screw up with your partner, it takes both of you to help repair the situation.  When you know to avoid the myths described above, here is what becomes a more rewarding path:

#1: Stay with the discomfort that comes from exploring your partner’s disappointment.

Pretend you are like a journalist gathering data.  Ask questions so that you can understand your partner, for example, “How did you feel while it was happening?”  “How did you interpret my actions/behavior while it was happening?” “What do you wish I had done differently?”

#2: Reflect back what you are hearing your partner say.

Just as a journalist gathers data and reports back what they learned, your partner would kiss the ground you walk on if you did that for them. Staying present is challenging when you don’t like what you are hearing. So, repeat back to them what you are hearing them say to you to be sure you are getting an accurate read. Body language and tone are as important as the words you say!

#3: Empathize. 

This is putting yourself in your partner’s shoes and acknowledging their suffering, “Given what happened, I understand why you would feel what you are are feeling.”

#4: Apologize. 

Summarize everything: “When I forgot about the event that you bought tickets for and I didn’t show up, you felt very hurt, angry, and you thought that I don’t care about you or our relationship. That sounds awful. I never intend to cause those feelings in you.”

#5: Invite a discussion about how to prevent a relapse.

If your partner hears that you are taking some accountability and thinking of ways to prevent the problem from happening again, it communicates that you care. “Going forward, I will put all events on my calendar so that I won’t forget.” Or “Can we discuss a more effective system for coordinating events so that this won’t happen again?”

In such an interdependent relationship, there are going to be screw ups.  It’s how you handle them that counts!  With practice, you will grow stronger as an individual and as a couple—it’s the kind of stuff that helps keep love alive over time.  And keep practicing. You and your partner will enjoy the rewards!

About 

Michelle Wangler Joy, MFT, has been employed at The Couples Institute in Menlo Park, CA, since 2002, and is currently a therapist on staff. She trains with relationship experts Ellyn Bader, Ph.D and Peter Pearson, Ph.D to deliver state of the art tools for couples. Michelle provides both couples and individual counseling, teaches communication workshops, and conducts training seminars both locally and nationally for therapists on how to help more couples.


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  13. Excellent tips. More than an apology, most people want to hear that you know what their experience was and that you care about it. Apologies without that don’t go very far to patch things up. It’s all about getting reconnected.
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  14. This article clearly spells out the different things that go through my head in my relationship when something could have gone better. I like the insight and how you break down the myths and to options about how to address a conflict. I will think about these ideas next time something goes awry.

  15. Great insight, Michelle! Myth #1 in particular really resonated with me when you wrote that “if your partner is hurt by something you did, they are right.” So often I try to convince my significant other that I’m right and he’s wrong during an argument that I overlook the fact that he’s entitled to his own feelings regardless of what we’re arguing about. Thanks for posting!

  16. Thank you for reading everyone, and I’m glad you found the blog to be a helpful resource!

  17. It is so helpful reading these myths Michelle.

    Each one has the potential to make a compelling argument against a sincere apology so I appreciate you setting out the more rewarding path for relationships.

    This will make a wonderful handout to give to couples!

  18. Excellent info Michelle.

    And to Katharine’s point, I recently wrote out an ideal apology on my articles page, and it includes the bit about “what can I do to make it up to you?” — which I got from Stan:

    Back in 1998 I had a conversation with Dr. Stan Dale about apologies. What stuck in my memory from that conversation is that it helps the other person feel better when we acknowledge the effect our behavior had on them. I’ve been refining this through the years…

    A Complete Apology

    My behavior: “What I did was…”
    The effect(s) on you was…
    I apologize for… (#1 and #2 above)
    What I learned about myself is…
    My intention going forward is…
    Is there anything I can do to make it up to you?

    Most apologies don’t include part 2, but be sure you do, because it’s the part that heals the most.

    –Russell

  19. Excellent material here, Michelle. So many couples are afraid to address their partner when either one of them “screws up.” I like the way you presented both the myths and the potential solutions. You have answered the question we so frequently hear in session: “I said I was sorry. What more do you want from me?” You have written great suggestions to help the couple get to the “what more is needed.” Thank you.

  20. Michelle,
    I love your post. I think the art of apologizing needs to be looked at much more closely and we can help our clients create more authentic connection if we help them with this process. The myths you outline get to the heart of the matter that prevents partners from being vulnerable and apologizing. The “more rewarding path” suggestions are so clear and make a challenging process so manageable. Following your wisdom can help couples create a huge shift and deeper connection. Thank you for sharing!!

  21. From what I understand in some cultures the repeated apologies stop having meaning after a time and they are followed by, How can I make it up to you?