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Marriage Counseling: The Anatomy Of An Apology
If you are in a marriage relationship, or any other relationship, you will need to know the anatomy of an apology. Couples in marriage counseling often learn that it’s more than simply saying ‘I’m sorry’. In fact, I often counsel couples I am working with to not use those words when trying to apologize. It can come across as shallow and meaningless to just say, ‘I’m sorry’. I try to help them be more sincere and effective as they try to right what they have done wrong.
So, what do you say instead? Let’s talk about 3 things you can do to apologize in a healthy way. You don’t have to be in marriage counseling to follow these steps.
Recognize What You Did Wrong
In order to start your apology off right, you need to recognize how you have hurt your partner. This doesn’t mean that you agree with them regarding what they are thinking, but rather that you can empathize and understand how your actions hurt them (Related Article: Emotions 101: How To Be Healthy and 3 Principles Of Emotional Health).
Take Ownership. Taking ownership of what you did shows your partner that you aren’t on the attack, but rather are trying to make things right. Tell your partner, “I yelled at you when we were talking about your family and that was wrong of me”. Let them know that you know what you did.
Be Thorough. Just saying the above isn’t enough. You need to come at it from different angles and talk it through. Simply saying, “I did that…”, for example, isn’t going to help. But showing your partner that you ‘get it’ will. Talk about your actions and what you did from multiple angles and in more than just one way. You could continue the above conversation by saying, “Yeah, you were talking about what you wanted to do with them and I got upset and raised my voice…”.
Avoid Being The Expert. You don’t know your spouse better than they do. Avoid telling them about them as you recognize what you did wrong (Related Article: How To Communicate Effectively: Avoid These Two Problems In Marriage). Don’t say, “I recognize that I yelled at you when you were telling me why your family is so great”. This is you being the expert on your partner. You are interpreting them as telling you why their family was so great, when that might not be what your partner was doing. This causes a fight almost every time.
Hold Space For Your Spouse
After you have talked about what you did wrong, hold emotional space for them (Related Article: Hold Emotional Space For Your Spouse). When you recognize what you have done and how that made them feel, let them talk about it. You can say, “I see that I hurt your feelings when I yelled at you. I can see why that’s painful for you”. Then let them talk about the hurt and pain. Hopefully, they stick with their primary emotions versus their secondary emotions when doing this (Related Article: How To Be Emotionally Healthy: Primary Versus Secondary Emotions). Marriage counseling can help you both stay on track when it comes to this part.
Make it about them, not you. Talk about their emotions and their experiences rather than your own. Instead of telling your side of the situation, talk completely about theirs and how your actions impacted them. This can be difficult, especially if you disagree with how they see things. However, you don’t have to agree with their thoughts to validate their emotions. So, let them talk.
Don’t try to explain their emotions away. It would be harmful to say, ‘You don’t have to feel sad because I really didn’t mean to hurt you. I’m just mad at your family’. Instead you could say, “I can see how you are hurt because of what I said about your family’. Your partner is going to feel their emotions and that is a good thing.
Take Action To Make It Right
Simply talking about what you did wrong and giving your partner space to share their feelings isn’t enough. You then need to start moving towards making it right. It’s hard to outline all the ways to do this. The main idea is that your apology needs to be more than just words. So, for example, the next time your partner is talking about their family, give them space to talk. Resist the temptation to tell your partner what to do or to attack them.
A simple, “I’m sorry” doesn’t convey the depth of a real apology. Make sure that you are giving you and your partner a chance to come together when you have hurt each other. Dr. John Gottman calls these Repair Attempts. They are crucial if you want to have a happy, successful marriage – he found in his research.
Start marriage counseling near you – South Jordan, Orem, Spanish Fork and through telehealth.
Written by Dr. Triston Morgan, LMFT