I’ve recently figured out the four most important rules to apologizing (I’m sorry I didn’t figure them out sooner). It came out of the fact that apologizing is a major complaint for most couples I see as a psychotherapist. The complaints almost always come in twos. The first is the apology doesn’t “feel” genuine – I hate that complaint. It bothers me because it has a passive aggressive tone to it: I deserve better. It also connects to the other biggest complaint: They’ve never apologized; I’m the only one who says I’m sorry. There are exceptions, but the stereotypes are usually the way it unfolds with the woman complaining the apology doesn’t “feel” real while the guy complains that they’re the only one who apologizes (stereotypes exist for a reason). What needs to be understood is that “I’m sorry,” is not the same as “I’m wrong.” Instead, it’s saying, “I understand you were hurt and I’m acknowledging that.” Thus, apologizing is something we should all be doing.
These two complaints suggest there is a power imbalance in the relationship, which is very dangerous because they lead to a lot of unnecessary hurt and resentment (and increases the potential for divorce). This connects to the post I did a few weeks ago discussing the dangers of eye rolling (eye rolling is a sign of contempt and the person feeling superior). The person defending themselves is the opposite of the eye roller because they are trying to prove themselves in some way. Unfortunately, it’s like a desperate salesman begging for a sale – it’s annoying. The worst part is both behaviors will fuel the other person’s bad behaviors thereby creating a terrible cycle: I’m annoyed with you, so you defend yourself making me more annoyed, which makes you defend yourself more, and so on.
One of the worst things people can do in an apology is to defend themselves even though it tends to be an inherent response. Whenever someone is upset with something we did, we naturally want to explain ourselves because we don’t want to feel/look stupid or hurt anyone. Unfortunately, defending ourselves causes the other person to feel brushed off as we make the situation about us rather than them. It also makes a simple situation bigger than it needs to be while at the same time we come across as weak. If there is a misunderstanding that needs to be cleared up, we should never defend ourselves, but we can ask, “Can I explain what I was thinking?” Ideally, this question should be asked later because if someone (e.g. my wife) tells me she has a problem with me (aka an event that never happens because I’m so perfect), she doesn’t care why I did it; she really just wants to be affirmed and shown that I understand her feelings. If I try to defend myself, I make it all about me and leave my wife not feeling heard or cared about, which will add to her hurt (i.e. at least I assume it will because I’ve never done this since I’m so perfect… yes, perfect). If someone apologizes and then tries to explain themselves, that erases the apology or makes it feel like it’s not genuine. It’s like I’m saying, “I’m sorry… but the real problem is you’re too dumb to understand what happened. I’m innocent so you’re an idiot for thinking otherwise.” Even though the person defending themselves is speaking out of fear/insecurity, the other person feels brushed off, which is why defending ourselves is so bad.
So here are the four most important rules to apologizing:
- There should always be two apologies (or one for each person involved in the conflict): One apology should always be reciprocated with another apology by the other person. Unless it’s a situation where the one person really screwed up like I broke my mom’s favourite vase (I did that as a kid… before I was perfect), if there’s a conflict between two people, two people have been hurt, so there should be two apologies.
- Don’t defend yourself (you probably guessed that after the earlier paragraph): let your “I’m sorry” simply be “I’m sorry” unless you want to add in how you’ll prevent it from happening again.
- Only explain yourself if you’ve asked and the other person says it’s okay to tell them.
- Accept whatever apology you are given and not question the genuineness of it even if they explain themselves because this is a sign of fear and we should have compassion for them.
The following is an example of the perfect apology sharing:
- Two people are starting to get heated, which leads to the one person saying, “I need [insert time].” This can be five minutes or an hour; whatever time the two people need to calm down. It’s like when the bell rings in a boxing match and the two opponents return to their corners and regroup. This is incredibly helpful for reducing actual fights because it prevents things from escalating too far.
- The two people vent get away from each other and vent out their emotion in a safe way.
- Both people fill in the following statement: I felt (emotion) because (reason). For instance, “I felt hurt because of how aggressive you were speaking to me,” or “I felt talked down to because your tone seemed condescending.”
- Both people come together and have one person share their one sentence: I felt (e.g. unloved, frustrated, disrespected, brushed off, etc.) because (reason).
- Person two responds: I’m sorry you felt (emotion they said) because (reason they said).
- Person two then shares their one sentence: And I felt (emotion they felt) because (reason)
- Person one then does their apology: I’m sorry you felt (emotion they said) because (reason).
This is the perfect conflict handling set up because it forces both sides to know what they felt in a clear one sentence and have it acknowledged by the other person. Notice, it’s BOTH people apologizing and there’s NO defending. Of course, the original issue still hasn’t been resolved, but at least the couple is returning with an equal footing. The two people can now ask if explanations can be given (if that’s still wanted). Before the couple returns to the original reason for the conflict, both people need to figure out what the actual problem is in ONE sentence (I’m always pushing for one clear sentence because it’s easier to understand than a paragraph). They will then need to pick a time to address it whether at that moment or at another time, so they can have some healing time.
This week may you consider how you can improve how you apologize.
Rev. Chad David, ChadDavid.ca, learning to love dumb people (like me)