Somtimes 'Sorry' Is Not The Only Word


While saying sorry helps, it's important to understand defense mechanisms at play to avoid repeats.

I had a conversation with a friend the other day about relationships and marriage. This friend has been married for over twenty years. When I shared a situation that had occurred in my own relationship, he jokingly replied that he’s found that the best strategy to keeping a happy marriage was learning how to say “Yes, honey, you’re right. I’m sorry.” I laughed and told him that when it came to having an intimate and healthy relationship with me, saying sorry was not enough, at least some of the time. With interest, the joking subsided and my friend asked me to explain further. This is what I said.

If my significant other does or says something that is hurtful and uncalled for, then a simple apology may not be enough. I say this because it is easy to simply acknowledge the “wrongdoing” and apologize. This may help me heal my hurt and get over it, but it won’t do any good in terms of preventing the same thing from happening again. Apologies enable two people to move on and feel heard and understood, but rarely do they result in any behavioral change. Without a true investigation about what dynamics lie underneath the behavior, one cannot become conscious of the defense mechanism at work. As long as you remain unconscious, the defense mechanism runs you; you are not in control of it and will have difficulty managing future triggers.

In the case with my significant other, he was upset about something I had said earlier in the day. Instead of addressing that upset directly at the time, he buried it until a situation arose where he could express his anger by saying something hurtful in a disguised and unrelated circumstance. Once I was “off balance”, he felt safe to bring up the initial upset. This was occurring unconsciously. He was unaware of his avoidance and displacement of his original feelings onto an unrelated and neutral topic. The result: I felt attacked for no reason at all. I felt there was a lack of thoughtfulness and sensitivity and was confused as to why he would say something so hurtful out of the blue.


We all have defense mechanisms that have been developed and refined over time. Sometimes we are aware of them but many times we are not. Defense mechanisms usually wreak havoc in a relationship. They are an attempt to protect oneself at the expense of another. You won’t find a person out there that does not have certain ways to protect themselves. These methods become visible when they result in hurt and pain for someone in the relationship. It was only after the second time this dynamic occurred in my own relationship that I began to understand what was happening. I knew that my significant other and I needed to explore what was happening in order to get a handle on this emerging dynamic in our relationship.

The first time this happened, my partner told me that he didn’t know why he said what he said and apologized profusely. The first time the apology was enough. I eventually let the hurt go and we moved on. The second time this happened he acknowledged his mishap as well, apologized again, and said it would never happen again. This time however, his apology was not enough. I knew that if he didn’t take a look at what was behind (or underneath) the behavior and understand the defense mechanism at hand, the probability that the behavior would show up again was high. Personally, I didn’t like the odds and wasn’t willing to take the risk. I invited him to explore the course of events.

In the end, my significant other discovered new things about himself. I discovered new things about myself. We discovered new things about each other. The unconscious became conscious. And we were both better off from having done the work. I don’t know if this will happen again, but if it does, I know that we are better equipped to deal with it and increase the odds that the behavior can be managed and a new, healthier way of dealing with issues can be incorporated.

So I invite you to take the time to explore what is going on behind the scenes. What defense mechanisms are at play? How can you manage them and integrate more constructive ways of dealing with things?

And remember, if you’re struggling with this, you’re not alone. It is hard to see what is going on in the fish bowl when you are the fish. It is far easier for an outside objective professional to see the dynamics at play and help you with alternatives. Please don’t hesitate to reach out. I’m here to help.

Be well,

Julie Orlov, psychotherapist, speaker, and author of The Pathway to Love: Create Intimacy and Transform Your Relationships through Self-Discovery

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