The Truth About Apology

There is a reason a lot of our blog posts are about hurts, apology and how to repair. The inability to be able to do this effectively is one of the hallmark features of struggling marriages.  In an ideal world, you could read all these posts, seek counsel and engage in an amazing program of self-growth to be the kind of person who never hurts their partner, but that is absolutely impossible. You will. And then you will (we hope) own the hurt you caused and apologize for it. And you both move right on. Sometimes, that’s where it ends.  

But sometimes, it isn’t.  

This is a truly frustrating position for a couple. The “apology” has happened but the hurt partner is still upset.  

Troubleshooting the Apology

One reason the apology may have fallen flat on your partner is because it was not a complete apology. When there has been a significant hurt in your relationship, apology becomes more of a process, not an event. If you find yourself saying, “I already apologized, there’s nothing more I can do” then keep reading. There is.

According to Dr. Brian Case, a Marriage and Family Therapist who specializes in apology and forgiveness, apology is a 12-step process.  If you said “I’m sorry,” you have completed only 1 of 11 steps. If you read through the steps, “overtly apologizing” is actually step 10.  There are 9 other steps leading up to the actual moment of saying “I am so sorry.” Here they are:

12 Steps of Apology

  1. Acknowledge what you did to hurt/offend him/her.  (open, honest, complete responsibility for your behavior(s), sincere, remorseful)
  2. Learn how what you did impacted him/her.  (Emotionally, mentally, physically, relationally &/or spiritually)
  3. Express an understanding of that impact. (Empathy, validation of their pain, fears, etc.)
  4. Make restitution where needed & possible. (Replace, restore, compensate, etc.)
  5. Learn HOW you did what you did. (Thoughts, decisions &/or behaviors before, during and after the hurtful event(s); how you “pulled it off”)
  6. Learn WHY you did what you did. (Underlying motivations such as fear, anger, revenge, numbing out, addiction, coping mechanisms, family dynamics, situational factors, “toxic shame”, pride, etc.)
  7. Explain to him/her how & why you did what you did.
  8. Identify what you need to do to not repeat behavior. (Detailed plan of action/accountability)
  9. Share plan of action/accountability with him/her.
  10. Overtly apologize again.  Express sorrow/remorse and your commitment to not repeat hurtful behavior(s).
  11. Ask for forgiveness and chance to restore trust.

If you have said “I’m sorry,” you have only done one of these steps.  

I Fully Apologized…Now What?

Now, let’s say you have done a fabulous job of apologizing and owning your behavior but your spouse is still upset. It may be tempting to say, “I’ve done all I can do. This is your problem now. This is your issue.” And, there may be some truth in that. Your spouse may need their own process to work on forgiveness (there are steps to that too). You could even gently and lovingly suggest that he/she work a similar process that you did to move toward forgiveness. And yes, they may be pissed that they have to “work” on anything as a result of something “you did.”  Hopefully, you can convey that the “work” is to help them find relief, not to let you off the hook.

There is one other caveat I want you to consider:  Sometimes, you can sincerely apologize and your spouse can sincerely forgive you and there can STILL be hurt.  When I see this happen in my office, it is usually because the hurtful event was traumatic for the spouse. In romantic relationships, things like affairs, betrayals, deception and abandonment can be experienced as a trauma, the same way a terrible car accident or tragic loss of a loved one can be.  This means, when they are reminded of the hurtful event, maybe they see something in a movie, pass a certain street while they are driving or hear a certain song on the radio, they have an intense reaction to it. In that moment, they are transported back to the very moment that the hurtful event occurred. Their body feels the same physical sensations, memories of the hurtful moments flash through their mind and they are flooded with the same emotions, like it is happening all over again.  This experience is NOT a choice for them. It is not because they are choosing to relive it and harp on it. This experience is normal and expected when someone has gone through something traumatic.

At this point, couples DO have a choice. They can engage in a battle of “I already apologized” and “You don’t even care about how I feel” OR they can recognize this moment for what it is: a normal and valid response to a traumatic event. When traumatized partners are triggered, research shows that true healing occurs when they can turn to their partner for comfort and their partner provides comfort. Comfort can be reassurance, a calming embrace, understanding, a listening ear, etc. (please refer back to last week’s blog post for a complete list). Sometimes, this has to happen a whole bunch of times in order to fully heal as a couple. What used to feel like an overwhelming flood of emotion starts to become a fleeting moment of sadness. When couples learn how to do this, as many times as it may take, the trauma truly can heal.  

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