No matter how much you try to do all the right things, you will mess up, you will be misunderstood, you will misunderstand, you will piss off your partner or you will hurt their feelings, whether you mean to or not.
Sometimes this will be over big things: you think your kid should go to private school and your partner is adamant about public. Or maybe you want to move to another town and a different house while your partner thinks that’s a crazy idea and you need to stay put.
There will also be trouble over the seemingly insignificant little things: You know, on Monday when you innocently asked your partner to take the garbage cans out to the curb and it erupted into World War III. Or last Saturday when you dipped the knife directly from the peanut butter into the jelly without wiping it off in between and this resulted in you and your partner discussing divorce options.
It doesn’t matter what the argument was about, it matters what we do with all the feelings that resulted from it. It matters that we want to restore peace and build intimacy. It matters that we think our relationship is important enough to stop and apologize when we’ve been the bad guy.
Now, there are times when you don’t think you did anything wrong and you got yelled at for it (like on Saturday when you were double-dipping that knife). However, if you yelled back and got defensive or huffy yourself, you’ve got skin in this game and a likely reason to own some mess on your side of the street.
Here’s the reason you care:
Apologies, when done right, have an almost magical power.
Not only can they defuse and neutralize anger, resentment and a full head-of-steam in an instant, they also create an immediate emotional connection where there was animosity and hurt just a moment before.
An apology can’t undo some hurtful thing you said or did in the past but, when done right, it can cancel out the negative effects of those actions and move your relationship forward.
And get this, research shows that an apology actually affects the person receiving it physically. Their blood pressure decreases, and their breathing becomes steadier as their heart rate slows. This is huge because it means that your apology will turn off your partner’s fight/flight/or freeze brain and turn on their compassionate, loving brain.
Why is it So Darn Difficult to Apologize?!?
“Apologies are the Brussels sprouts of relationships. Research says they’re good for us, and, like a dinner of the green stuff after a lunch of burger and fries, they can erase or at least mitigate the ill effects of a transgression. But there’s something about both apologies and tiny bitter brassicas that makes us often choose something else on the menu, thank you very much.”
-Science researcher and author, Sharon Begley
Apologizing is difficult for a bunch of reasons:
Apologizing is difficult because it temporarily reduces your self-esteem. Yup. When you apologize you give over some of your power and control to the other person, and that does not feel good to the vast majority of people. When you admit you’ve done wrong, it makes you vulnerable and you might feel embarrassed or even humiliated.
Another reason apologizing is hard is due to what’s referred to as the “magnitude gap.” Basically, this is the difference between how each person thinks about the severity of the crime.
Compared to the wounded party, transgressors are much more likely to defend or justify what they did, say they didn’t mean it, or minimize the hurt in some other way.
Maybe you’re trying to write off the hurt as a little mistake: “I’ve never forgotten a dinner date before! It was just this one time!” Or maybe you think you’ve got a valid excuse, “You know I’ve been really worried about my mom, I haven’t been myself.” Or maybe you even “blame the victim” and say something like, “If you didn’t ignore me all the time, I wouldn’t need to raise my voice!”
Psychologist Karina Schumann, of the University of Pittsburgh, has been studying why it’s hard to apologize and she says that one of the big reasons is because it’s super hard on our self-image as a decent, caring, sensitive, moral person.
Do you ever wonder why it’s so easy to say “I’m sorry” if you accidentally bump into someone in the street versus saying it to your partner when you hurt their feelings? It’s because bumping into someone doesn’t affect your sense of self.
In other words, how well you walk doesn’t impinge on how you see yourself. But, hurting your partner’s feelings does.
“If the transgression doesn’t reflect on your character or your morality, it doesn’t threaten your self-image to acknowledge it with an apology,” Schumann says. But if you did something that threatens your self-image as a loyal, good person and partner, that apology is going to be difficult. I mean, who wants to call attention to their failings?!
Schumann explains, “Apologies bring us face-to-face with the fact that we have something to apologize for, triggering a sense of guilt and its close partner, shame.”
For all these reasons, it can feel so much easier, safer and more comfortable to avoid the apology and just move forward. But you’ve got to remember that old saying, “If you sweep shit under the rug, the whole room is going to stink.”
Apologies are important for moving your relationship forward and creating intimacy and trust.
What’s Not an Apology:
Before we jump completely into the steps for an effective apology, I want to be clear on what isn’t an apology:
- “If I hurt you, I’m sorry.” There’s no ownership here, no clear message that you understand what you did to hurt the other person.
- “I’m sorry you feel that way.” This is basically a f-you and is not an apology.
- Using the word “but” during an apology. “I’m so sorry I called you that name during our fight, but…” That word “but” negates all you said before it. You’re making an excuse and blaming, not apologizing.
So, even if you think the other person’s feelings are unjustified, even if you didn’t mean it, or even if you have a perfectly good excuse for doing or saying what you did, an apology still needs to happen.
Apologizing isn’t about who’s right or wrong in any given situation. It’s not about winning or losing. It’s about acknowledging the other person’s feelings and taking accountability for your part in it.
General Rules for an Apology:
There are also a few general things to keep in mind when you’re thinking about making an apology:
First, you want to get ahead of any negative momentum. So, you want to apologize as early as you can. The longer both you and the other person think about what went down, the longer you both have to get more and more negative and it becomes harder and harder to come back.
The other thing to keep in mind is that, for the other person to truly forgive you, they need to feel like you “get it.” They need to know that you understand how whatever you did impacted them. This means that your empathy game needs to be strong!
Empathy means that you’re able to step into the other person’s shoes for a moment so you can have a fuller understanding of their experience, their feelings and their point of view.
The 6 Steps to Apologizing for Real:
1. Set an intention before you start. Make sure your motives are true and gather a loving heart focus first. Make sure that you speak kindly and from a place of compassion and openness.
2. Acknowledge the offense. Say what happened and your part in it. You’ve got to completely and clearly acknowledge the offense. Do not even hint that the other person or some other outside force is to blame. Take full responsibility.
3. Express remorse (I’m sorry) but add your feelings. “I feel so sorry and embarrassed that my actions created so much havoc for you.” “I feel sad that I was caught up in my feelings and didn’t realize the impact it was having on you.” “I feel guilty…”
4. Show that you understand how it impacted them – whether you agree that it “should have” or not. Express empathy! Show that you’re trying to understand how they feel.
5. Give the why – but it should be focused on you (I only did it because you pissed me off isn’t going to cut it)! Show that you’ve had some introspection and can see where you went off course. This is not a time to make excuses – it’s a time to say what was going on inside your head. Do not be defensive, no matter what.
6. Say what you’re doing to stop this from happening again – what you’re doing to change the behavior. Can you make some kind of reparation? Or you can ask, “What’s one thing I could do/say right now to clean this up for good?”