Do Your Partner's Apologies Get a C- (or Worse)?

Love, Self

5 Ways to Put Your Heads Together and Start Getting A’s

We all know the value of a timely apology. Done well, it heals like an emotional analgesic. Done really well, its reparative speed seems magical. Done poorly, it falls flat, and we go from magical to meh.

Most of us aren't schooled in the art of apologizing. We pick up a few bad habits from our families, flail around using trial and error, and then continue to stumble, wondering why our efforts don't do the job. If the vignette below describes one of your rough patches, it's time to give your “Sorry Skills” a tuneup.

You've been quarreling more than usual lately and just had another fight. Even though you're discouraged, you know it's a good idea to figure out why things went off the rails. You sit together, face-to-face, and give it a shot. As you begin sharing your different perspectives, you both get fired up. A bit too fired up, so you decide to take another excellent bit of advice and gently suggest a timeout. After a while, the emotions dissipate, and you come back together. Maybe you have make-up sex, maybe you don’t, but you do exchange sweet “I'm sorry’s,” reaffirm your connection, and promise to do better. A few days later a similar problem crops up, and you're right back at it. You hear your partner mutter, “WTF, not again. I thought we just handled that!”

And, of course, you did. The problem is your repair efforts didn't go far enough, and one (or both) of you is still hurting. Whether it's a reluctance to acknowledge missteps or face your flaws, you may have rushed the process, relying on superficial declarations that got you nowhere. Don't lose heart. Unless deeply ingrained destructive behaviors or personality disorders are causing your fights, you can turn things around. If you discuss the following 5 steps before your next dust-up (trust me, you'll have one), your apologies may start working the way you want.

  1. Preparation. Check in before you start repairing anything. Are you willing to honor your partner’s point of view, or are you still on a fact-finding mission, arguing about who’s right and who’s wrong? My advice: Forget about the so-called facts when it comes to your garden variety issues. You each have a point of view that makes sense even though you don’t see eye-to-eye. Deepening your understanding doesn't guarantee agreement. Whether you do some deep breathing, head for the gym, or watch TV, don't go further until you’re ready to acknowledge that your partner is NOT YOU and that it's perfectly okay to be NOT YOU.

  2. Self-reflection. During your alone time, recall a moment when YOU were on the receiving end of what you think your partner is going through right now. Pick something that has nothing to do with your partner— an incident from a different era or another relationship when you felt excluded, hurt, ashamed, unappreciated, overlooked, disrespected, or humiliated. Maybe you were the object of someone’s anger, judgment, or ridicule. Revisit the incident as if you're watching a movie. Who was there?  Where were you sitting or standing? Who said what to whom?  Allow yourself to re-experience the emotions you felt. Were you sad, angry, guilty, or ashamed? Were you afraid? Pay attention. The pain you’re experiencing is probably similar to what your partner is experiencing now. Once you've been there and felt that, you're more likely to offer an apology that works.

  3. The Apology. When you’re back together and the time is right, sit close, and hold each other's gaze. Stay in touch with your "been there, felt that” experience. Why?  Because an apology is not an intellectual exercise. You want your partner to hear the emotion in your voice, see it on your face, and feel it in your touch. It's called empathy, and it means you get it. Without empathy, you wind up sounding robotic, as if you're lining out items on a To Do list.  Keep your apology short, slow, and tender. Leave out the excuses and the explanations. “I see how uncomfortable I made you by being late. I know how much the event meant to you, and I let you down. I'm really sorry.”  Don't go on and on about what it looked like on your end: “I’m sorry I did that. I wasn't at my best. It was my stress talking. I had a brutal day, plus I had a killer headache. I’m so sorry!” The goal is to focus on your partner not you.

  4. The Aftermath. Ask for feedback about how your apology landed. Is your partner still tense or did they relax (e.g., shoulders softening followed by a long exhale)? Is there more to say? Take your time. The goal is for you both to feel understood and cared about. if you're uncertain you covered all the bases, ask, and then supply whatever's missing. Often, it's a heartfelt summary of your partner's perspective that ends with, “I get how much I hurt you, and I'm really sorry.” It's not rocket science. It's about being witnessed. Heard. Felt. Gotten.

  5. Looking ahead. Once you're sure the apologies did their job, come up with suggestions for how you might do better in the future. Start by talking about yourself. “I'll call if I'm running late rather than dodging you.” Or, “I'll stop looking at my phone when we’re together.” Or, “I'll put you before my folks.” As for your partner’s suggestions for you, listen up. If you don’t like what you’re hearing, listen harder. Get clear on what’s being asked. A negative reaction might mean your partner is right on target. Last but not least, put your money where your mouth is. If you don't do what you promise, your carefully crafted apology goes nowhere. Even worse, empty promises erode trust over time.

Follow these guidelines and your apologies will be more likely to have an impact. Don't be surprised if you hear your partner say something like, “Well, thanks, babe. It’s not like I’m perfect or anything. It's okay. We're good.” Once you've got it down, be brave and revisit some of your old wounds. If they continue to cause you pain and trouble, guess what? There’s more healing to do. Get used to it. You’re two different people with two different sets of wants and needs. You're bound to clash and hurt one another. Exploring your injuries, both past and present, is a pathway to deeper connection. As for those half-baked, C- repairs, well, they just don't do the job. Go for the A, a heartfelt apology that soothes and gets you going in a better direction, making your relationship stronger than ever.

Diana Shulman, J.D., PhD is a psychoanalyst and the author of The ABCs of Love: Learn How Couples Rekindle Desire and Get Happy Again. Dr. Diana is certified in Gottman Method and Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples, research-based approaches supported by decades of work with thousands of couples.

This article was originally published at Diana Shulman's Website. Reprinted with permission from the author.