If you are an avid reader of this blog, you already know that the three most important words in a marriage are not “I was wrong” – they’re actually “help me understand.” (Check out the post here for the whole scoop.)
I want to elaborate a little on why an apologetic statement like “I was wrong” or even “I’m sorry” just doesn’t do the trick when it comes to healing and growing a relationship.
Imagine your partner has offended you in some way. They made a comment that hurt your feelings, or annoyed you, or upset you somehow, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Maybe they have some sense that you’re irritated with them, or maybe they have no idea at all that they’ve offended you. You decide to share how you’re feeling in a respectful way. You let them know you feel upset about what they said.
“I’m sorry,” comes the response. And then you both carry on about your day.
Do you feel better? Probably not much. Why not?
You don’t feel heard. You don’t feel like they truly care about the problem. They’ve waved it away with a cursory apology and are hoping it’s all better now.
This is a natural reaction for your partner to have, mind you. Nobody wants to look at the person they love and hear all about how they’ve caused them pain. It’s only natural to try to make it go away as quickly as possible. (And to be fair, it’s a much more functional response than what many people default to, which is becoming defensive or even going on the offensive.)
Yet the reality is, looking directly at your pain exactly what you need from them. How can you believe they truly care about your pain if they refuse to see it? Being willing to accept the pain involved in seeing how they’ve hurt you is a necessary part of healing the emotional injury. Responding to a problem with “I’m sorry” right out of the gate skips over that indispensable step. And while it may help you move along and keep going, it doesn’t really repair the breach.
If you’ve hurt your partner, taking the time to hear out their feelings and responding validation and empathy communicates that their problem is important to you, that they are important to you. By contrast, an apology often conveys that you care more about how you are feeling than how they are feeling. “I’m sorry” means, in a sense, “I am feeling regret.” Suddenly you’re talking about how you’re feeling. Whoops!
(This is a problem I commonly see when I work with couples where there’s been an affair. The straying party often feels genuine and intense guilt and remorse, and says things like, “I hate myself for what I did” or “I’ll never forgive myself.” The betrayed partner’s reaction to these comments is never appreciative. Their response is usually some version of “I don’t give a @#$! how you feel about it!” They expect, fairly, that their unfaithful partner should be focusing on their victim’s feelings and not their own.)
What you will find is that if you can really show your partner that you get the problem, truly and deeply, and that you care about how it has made them feel – an apology often isn’t even necessary. They know you’re sorry. You haven’t just said it, you’ve lived it. The closeness you can build through such an experience is the stuff good relationships are made of.
That’s not to say that an apology is never necessary. It’s usually good to give it a shot – after you’ve connected with your partner’s pain, after you’ve communicated empathy. Until you do that, it’s really just words. “I feel regret” is about me, but “I feel regret after having really understood your pain” is about our connection. Feeding that connection is what will grow your relationship.
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