By: Francine and Byron Pirola
Sadly many couples don’t actually know how to apologize and reconcile when they’ve hurt their spouse. People think that it’s obvious, or that it should just be instinctual, or that love should make it all happen spontaneously.
Well it isn’t and it doesn’t.
We see too many wounded couples stuck in a pattern of entrenched blame and reactivity for the process of an apology to be a simple matter. In reality, a bit of knowledge and training is invaluable because sometimes, good intentions are simply not enough to restore the relationship.
Here are five elements to the art of an apology.
1. Admit your Error
It’s amazing how hard some people find this. They acknowledge that something went wrong, but they dodge and weave to avoid accepting responsibility for it themselves. There’s always an excuse, or someone else who is more at fault.
- “I said things that hurt you but you made me so angry”.
- “I know I forgot to get milk but it wasn’t my fault”.
- “I know I promised to be home by xyz but abc held me up”.
- “I shouldn’t have shouted at you but you provoked me”.
- “I wouldn’t have done it if I wasn’t so stressed/sleep deprived/lonely etc”.
It might be true, but the thing is, as soon as ‘but’ or ‘if’ slips into the admission of error, the message that your spouse hears is that you really don’t believe you were at fault. Taking responsibility for your error is not only essential for your intimate relationships to thrive, it is fundamental to your spiritual growth. Practice these sentences so that they become a natural part of your apology vocabulary: think of it as a spiritual exercise in humility.
- I was wrong, I stuffed up.
- I made a mistake.
- I was careless/selfish/insensitive/dishonest etc.
- I failed to be the husband/wife I promised to be.
- I let you down and you didn’t deserve that.
2. Acknowledge the Harm
One of the things that often holds people back from accepting an apology and granting forgiveness is the sense that their spouse doesn’t really understand the full extent of the harm. They rightly still fear that there will be a recurrence because if there is no genuine understanding of the harm done, the person can too easily repeat the offence. The wounded spouse feels like they have to remain defended because there is this uncertainty about whether the other really is motivated to avoid a recurrence. Moreover, a clear and thorough articulation of the harm is tremendously healing for the wounded spouse. To hear someone, especially the one who hurt them, name and validate the specific ways that they have been impacted is tremendously affirming. It releases within them the need to have their hurt validated and allows them to open up to trust again.
Here are some key phrases that are part of acknowledging the pain and harm.
- When I did/said xyz, you felt ….
- My actions caused you to feel…
- My selfishness/carelessness/dishonesty etc. hurt you by…
- My words/actions have wounded you deeply by…
- My failure to xyz has harmed you by…
3. Express Sorrow
“I’m sorry, OK!” is not an apology in anyone’s language. So often people think that if they just say the words, “I’m sorry” then it is enough. Well the words have to be said with genuine sorrow and regret. They have to be heartfelt and if you have (1) Admitted your Error and (2) Acknowledged the Harm, they should be. In fact you don’t feel deep, authentic sorrow after doing the first two steps, you either didn’t do them properly (so do them again) or there’s something wrong with you and you need to see a psychologist. Seriously — we’re not being funny — get some help.
Here are your practice phrases:
- I am so deeply sorry for wounding you.
- I am filled with sorrow and regret for the harm I have done.
- I’m so, so sorry for the way I have hurt you.
- I can’t express how much I regret my actions/words and I am so sorry for hurting you.
- I am overwhelmed with sorrow for the way I have failed to love you.
4. Request Forgiveness
For many people, this is actually the hardest part of an apology because it requires complete vulnerability and the surrender of all power to the offended person. When we ask for forgiveness, we are really asking the other person to let us back into their hearts. If you’ve done all the other parts of the apology process and have a genuine sorrow, the request for forgiveness is a natural next step but forgiveness can never be demanded and the response must always be respected, even if it is to withhold forgiveness.
For the offended person, granting forgiveness can be challenging, especially if the offence was very significant. You can read more about it at here and here.
Here are your practice lines:
- Please forgive me.
- With all my heart, I want to be one with you, please forgive me.
- I know it is a lot to ask, but I’m asking you to forgive me if you can.
- I know I don’t deserve it, but if you can, please forgive me.
- If you can find it in your heart to accept me back, please forgive me.
5. Commit to Change
Your spouse may have sincerely forgiven you and released their resentment towards you, but that doesn’t automatically mean that they can or should trust you immediately. Words and intentions need to be followed through with consistent action. Only then, will trust be gradually and fully restored. Most offenses are serial — he doesn’t just shout at her once, he’s done it lots of times. She doesn’t just criticize him on one occasion or about one thing, it’s a pattern. For the offended person to be able to not just forgive, but trust again with full openness, there has to be a demonstrated commitment to reform. And when there is a serious hurt and breach of trust between a husband and wife such as infidelity or violence, for reconciliation to be possible there must sincere repentance that requires you to not just say how you will change but to follow it up with sustained action.
The Art of Apology…
Being able to successfully reconcile in a marriage is a vital skill for sustaining the love and warmth in the relationship. And it begins with understanding the Art of Apology. Research by Five Love Language founder (Gary Chapman) and Dr. Jennifer Thomas reveal that each person has a ‘preference’ for one aspect of the apology process – that element is so important to them, that if it isn’t part of an apology, they just don’t believe that the apology is sincere. For example, if expressing sorrow is key for you, unless you hear the words, “I’m sorry”, you just won’t be able to accept the apology.
And often, the aspect that is key for your spouse, is the one thing that you find hardest.
The Art of Apology list is not a smorgasbord where you pick out only the parts you like; it’s a complete meal deal. Master all of these aspects of apology so that you can be sure that every time you apologize, no matter who it is, you can be sure to have all the bases covered.
Credit to Francine and Byron Pirola of SmartLoving.