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 shouldbe enough. Now we can move on, right?
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!
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.”
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!
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.