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Is it hard for you to apologize to your partner? Is your partner apology-challenged?

The truth is, if you’re going to live with your partner, day in and day out, for years, you’re going to hurt each others’ feelings. The good news is that a rock-solid apology, delivered in a timely fashion can actually strengthen your relationship.

Why? Because an insightful apology acknowledges the pain of your conflict, then imagines how you can learn from it and grow: together. A compassionate apology can actually deepen your connection because now you’ve identified a hole in your relationship that needs mending.

With the right tools, your apology acts like a needle and thread, stitching up those holes.

The 4 steps of a good apology

After years of mending those holes you and your sweetheart are stitched so tightly together that you’ll feel like one fabric. This kind of intimacy feels amazing. I’m lucky enough to experience this kind of love, and it’s what I want for you.

A deep apology at my house contains 4 steps:

  • Say the word “sorry” or something similar
  • Take responsibility for your behavior
  • Acknowledge your partner’s feeling
  • Offer a plan for change

Here are the prompts for how to speak aloud these intentions:

  • I’m sorry…
  • I did…
  • You feel…
  • I want to do better, so my plan is…

We’re gonna look at several examples of horrible apologies, examining how a lousy apology can create even more distance in your relationship than the initial conflict. Then we’ll tweak that apology to foster intimacy and connection.

Why “right” and “wrong” ruin a good apology

But before we do that, let’s talk about how damaging it is for your relationship to boil things down to I’m right and you’re wrong.

Instead of these I’m right/you’re wrong labels, let’s notice the behavior each person wants, instead of blaming them. Because remember what Chantel taught us in episode 48? We want to assume positive intent.

You and your partner are both trying your best to connect, there’s just something in the way. When we can find that something, and offer compassion, the problem usually solves itself.

 

First example: Justify, justify, justify!

In this situation River and Ash have 2 kids. They’ve agreed family dinners are important and the kids need to be in bed by 8:00 to get a good night’s sleep.

River has a demanding job, and works late on a regular basis, arriving home at 7:45. Ash feels resentment, and loneliness each time River comes home late.
Ash complains at the late arrival.

“I’m sorry,” says River, “but my co-worker really needed my help on this project. I’m the one everyone leans on at work and I can never get out of there on time.” River feels justified because their work keeps the bills paid, and you can hear that River doesn’t really feel sorry, right? What are the clues?

Let’s go through the four steps of an effective apology:

Step 1—Use the word “sorry.” In this case the word “sorry” is canceled out with the, “but…” As we’ve talked about previously, the word “but” erases everything that was just said. If you say (or hear) “I’m sorry but…” you’d be better off with no apology, because this one ain’t gonna bring any healing.

Step 2—Take responsibility for your behavior. This portion of the apology is meant to be a confession. But in the JUSTIFY-APOLOGY notice how, instead of a confession, River uses this opportunity to talk about how important and indispensable they are at work.

River sees themself as the most important person in this situation, and the narrative of their apology emphasizes that. River skips right over step 3 (how Ash feels as a result of River’s behavior), and instead of a promise to do better in the future (step 4), River emphasizes why they’re right. “I’m the one everyone leans on.”

How does this non-apology feel to Ash? Ash now feels even more invisible and unimportant than if River have said nothing at all. These two are now further alienated than before.

Let’s see what we can do to clean up this apology:

First and most importantly, let’s erase the idea of right and wrong. When it comes to love, we’re not trying to win, we’re trying to connect.

As we make changes to the apology, let’s keep in mind how both people are feeling. We know that Ash feels hurt because River doesn’t make it a priority to get home in time.

How does River feel? Justified. There’s a reason River is late. And River is feeling caught in the pinch of disappointing Ash, or failing at work. So, River justifies their behavior to prove they’ve made the right choice to stay late at work.

When it’s about right and wrong, nobody gets to feel loved.

River doesn’t feel respected for their hard work, and Ash doesn’t feel valued for all that childcare they’re doing.

Let’s make the apology about love rather than who’s right or wrong.

“I’m sorry,” says River. “I stayed late again at work.” (Here’s step 1: say sorry and step 2: take responsibility…) Can you hear how, in this version of the apology, River takes responsibility for their behavior. Full stop.

Then here’s where the gold happens in step 3.

When River talks about how this feels to Ash. “I bet when I stay late at work, you feel like I value work more than I value you.” (Can you hear how the love matters more than the justification to be right?)

Step 4 is where River will talk about how they want to do things differently in the future. In this step it’s important that you consider what you can promise carefully. Don’t over-promise. But reach to find a way to show your sweetheart they DO matter to you.

River says, “I want to be with you and our kids. That’s important to me. And I feel stuck. I can feel that layoffs are coming at work and I want to make sure it’s obvious I’m the one to keep. I worry about what will happen to our family if I lose my job.”

Can you feel how this apology is about connection and love rather than justifying who’s right and who’s wrong?

River was able to change the I’m sorry BUT…into I’m sorry AND…

Now River and Ash can have a different kind of discussion. How do work and family balance? How are their lifestyle choices and career choices impacting their lives?

This apology opens a discussion where they are teammates trying to solve a problem together. They’re stitching together their lives rather than tearing holes with an argument of right and wrong.

 

Second Example: The Victim.

Dominique and Jaden are both athletes. They care a lot about what they eat because it impacts their training. As a result, they use their kitchen a lot. Dominique loves to cook. Jaden has agreed to clean up.

Dominique comes home and finds the kitchen a mess. She’s hungry and wants to prepare a meal, but there’s not a clean counter in the entire kitchen.

She gets angry and, when Jaden walks into the room she lets him have it, “I’m sick of this! You agreed you’d clean the kitchen!”

Jaden looks down at the floor, “I’m so sorry. You’re right, I never clean the kitchen. You feed us so well and I’m just a loser. I don’t know why you stay with me.”

In this apology, Jaden is so hard on himself that Dominique is coerced into feeling sorry for him, and in addition to dealing with a messy kitchen, now she feels she needs to build him up rather than just getting to do the cooking she wanted to do.

Why doesn’t this apology feel good?

If River wasn’t taking any responsible with his justify-apology, Jaden is taking too much responsibility with this victim apology. Can you see how neither of these apologies truly foster connection?

Let’s help Jaden offer a solid apology:

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t clean the kitchen last night because I was tired. But then I didn’t get it cleaned this morning so you’d have a clean kitchen to start over and make us your wonderful food.”

Can you hear how Jaden handled step 1—say you’re sorry. Then step 2—take responsibility for your behavior. When Jaden cleanly owns his behavior—but ONLY this particular behavior around the clean kitchen, it keeps the apology open-hearted.

Now let’s watch as Jaden employs step 3 and talks about how this makes Dominique feel, “I bet when I leave the kitchen a mess and don’t hold up my end of the bargain, you feel like I’m dissing you. Like I’m not valuing all the work you do making us great food.”

This is a crucial step for people who often play the victim card when they apologize.

If you tend to play the victim card, you’re going global.

Instead, name the precise feelings and precise actions for which you want to apologize. This keeps the scope small. Don’t go global if you want your apology to land keenly.

Your promise

Now Jaden thinks about the promise he can make going forward—step 4. He needs to take into account his disposition: he’s not a night owl and cleaning up at the end of the day is tough for him.

“Right now I’m gonna clean off this counter so you have a workspace to start dinner,” he promises Dominique. And going forward, I’m gonna get up 30 minutes earlier in the mornings so I can clean the kitchen in the mornings.”

When you take responsibility for your behavior and for the way your behavior impacts your partner, your apology helps you know how to align your life so that you are a better partner.

When Jaden goes global, “I don’t know why you stay with me…” it’s so huge that there is nothing tangible for Jaden to change. This is a convenient story to tell if you like getting out of chores. Instead, keep it super specific so that you give yourself a concrete behavior you can change.

Here’s a hint, if your partner regularly has to say what is it specifically that you’re sorry for, this might be your strategy.

When you are the victim, you’re powerless.

You don’t know how to change. So, take charge and find the tiny step you can do differently next time.

This tiny-step-apology is the cornerstone of any relationship where you share a front door and a toilet because as you combine your lives, you need to figure out how to live together. Living together is filled with tiny details that need tending.

 

Third Example: I’m not sorry

Horrible apology number 3 says, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Which is code for I’m not sorry at all. Let’s look at this one.

Michael is upset because Jessica chose to go hang out with her friends instead of going out to dinner with him. He told her so and demanded she apologize.

So, Jessica says, “I’m sorry you feel that way, but I didn’t want to miss my friend’s big birthday party. You go out with your friends and I don’t complain.”

We’ve already talked about how “but” cancels step 1 of this apology. Step 2—take responsibility— Jessica is announcing her behavior and owning it, but there’s no regret in her voice, which tips us off she’s not really sorry. Instead of step 3—where she could talk about Michael’s feelings, she is justifying and comparing: You do the same thing, right?

Do you think Jessica’s apology will gain any intimacy in her relationship with Michael? I’m highly skeptical. Instead, I think this non-apology will set up a tit for tat score-keeping board where they each get to do something the other person doesn’t like. Ick.

When you’re not sorry, don’t use the word “sorry”

I don’t think Jessica is sorry and I don’t think she wants to do anything different in the future. So, the kindest thing in her relationship is to own that truth whole-heartedly.

“I know you wish I wouldn’t have gone out with my friends (Jessica is tiptoeing into step 3 hinting at Michael’s feelings), but I’m not sorry I went.” Boom. Clarity. Truth-telling. Step 1 can be just as effective in repairing your relationship tapestry when you boldly give an un-apology.

The difference between an “un-apology” and a “non-apology”

I want to make a distinction between an un-apology and a non-apology. River gave a non-apology when they inserted that word “but” right after the word “sorry.” River is actually sorry they didn’t make it home for dinner. But River is also concerned about losing their job.

River felt stuck between a rock and a hard place and that’s a spot where we often justify our actions because we can’t see a way out.

Jessica’s situation is different. She knows she could have gone out to dinner with Michael, but she chose not to. Now let’s watch as she validates her own desires even as she makes a tender reach toward Michael by walking through the rest of the steps.

How to build intimacy when you DON’T apologize

“I know you wanted me to go out to dinner with you. You feel connected when we are able to have a night out and we’re relaxed and I’m dressed up. I love that too. I had fun last week when we went out.” Can you see steps 2 and 3 here? Jessica is owning her behavior (which is step 2) as she validates Michael’s feelings (step 3).

She continues, “I know that in your perfect world we’d spend every night together.” Here Jessica transitions to step 4, only instead of a promise she will make to do what Michael wants, she’s going to promise to keep disappointing him. She says, “But I’m not gonna be happy doing that.”

An “un-apology” is a reach of connection

Now here’s where the magic of the un-apology happens: Jessica continues, “I’m more attracted to you when I’ve had time to wake up the other parts of myself. When I go out with my girlfriends, I get to do things and feel things I never feel in our relationship. Then I wrap up all that joy and satisfaction and come back to give you hugs and kisses from my full tank.”

To drive home that what Michael thinks he wants isn’t realistic, she says, “You would go crazy if I didn’t go out with my girlfriends, because then I’d be processing and processing with you. You don’t like to go over the same things over and over. But my girlfriends love it,” she says.

“That way I get what I need and I don’t ask you to be my therapist. See how you actually win when I go out with my girlfriends?”

Notice how Michael now feels embraced and loved rather than abandoned and neglected when Jessica says it this way.

Try this relationship habit: 

To avoid conflict and foster connection, this week’s habit for your happily ever after is to practice apologizing to yourself.

Use all 4 steps. Speak your apology out loud, or write it in a journal.

When you learn to apologize to yourself, you become infinitely more gracious to others.

Here’s an example:

Step 1: Hey Rebecca, I’m sorry I didn’t take better care of what I fed you yesterday.

Step 2: I get tired in the afternoon, and, instead of just laying myself down and taking a rest, I eat junky food and watch some inane clip on YouTube.

Step 3: I know this is a frustrating cycle for you. I know you feel out of control when I don’t feed you well. And I know it’s overwhelming when I don’t let you rest when you’re tired. I understand why you reach for the junk food, because that’s a cue to our body to sit down for a minute.

Step 4: In the future, I’m going to try a little afternoon habit of laying down. During this laydown I might put on some music or even watch that mindless YouTube clip. Maybe silence will feel best. Then, at the end of that lay down, I’ll take a moment to notice how hungry you are. And I’ll also notice what food you’d truly like to eat.

Wow! I didn’t even make this connection about the lay down and the junk food. These are the kinds of realizations you can have about your own needs when you purposefully go through these steps to offer yourself a true apology.

If you want to get better at apologies with your partner, start by offering a strong apology to yourself.

Your apology will improve when you find your worth

I used to suck at apologies. That’s because I found my worth in being right. Being functional. Having it all together. And I didn’t let myself value what I wanted as much if not more than I valued what my husband wanted.

When you’re locating your worth in being right or in your accomplishments, it’s difficult to apologize. The thing about worthiness is that the more worthy you feel, the less compelled you are to prove your worth. You feel your worth. You own your worth.

When you know you’re worthy, you reach for the connection, because you want to be close to your sweetheart. You want to understand your partner. You want your partner to know and understand you.

I know how valuable I am in my husband’s life now. That has made it so much easier for me to acknowledge where I let him down and, hence, discover those holes in our relationship tapestry.

Try this date night discussion: 

This week let yourselves talk about step 3: how does your partner feel when you’ve hurt their feelings?

Every couple has a conflict that surfaces over and over. These conflicts happen because each of us wants to be right. When our sweetheart feels pain as a result of our actions, we feel wrong.

So, this week, I invite you to start your discussion with, “I’m really nervous that if I listen to how you feel, I’ll feel indicted and accused. I’ll feel like you’re saying I’m wrong. But it’s really important to me to hear how you feel.”

Notice the strategic way I used the word “but” there. I used it after I protected my own feelings. Your inner lizard is afraid of being wrong. It helps your inner lizard to calm down if you voice your own fears.

When you acknowledge your fear AND state that you want to hear how your sweetheart truly feels, you’ve made BOTH of you important.

As your sweetheart begins to tell you how they feel, your task is to do two things:

  • Listen to your sweetheart’s feelings
  • Calm your inner lizard who is terrified that listening in this way means you’ll be indicted

 

How do I get my inner lizard to listen?

Here’s a possible script you could use:

It’s important to me to understand how you feel. I can feel myself getting defensive (or outraged, or indignant, or any other feeling that comes up). I’m gonna name my feeling so my inner lizard calms down, because what I most want is to keep listening to how you feel. Right now, this isn’t about how I feel, it’s about me hearing how you feel. 

The only reason I’m voicing how I feel is so that my inner lizard doesn’t leap up and take control of this conversation. I’m voicing my feelings so we can note them and return to talking about how you feel.

This kind of discussion is Big Work. Don’t have a discussion like this when you’re tired or hungry.

And, don’t put this discussion off for the perfect moment, because that perfect moment never arrives.

Something magical happens when you truly listen and when you are truly heard. You soften. You soften when you understand your sweetheart because your compassion kicks in. The love for your sweetheart opens your heart.

When you are allowed to be truly heard, your defenses dry up and disappear. Instead of a wall of protection and justification, you feel those threads of connection sewing you closer to your sweetheart.

When you practice honoring both your feelings and your sweetheart’s feelings in discussions like this, your relationship will thrive. You’ll feel a new level of intimacy that you’ve never before felt.

Of course, I want to know how it goes. Text me at 970-210-4480 to let me know what you discover about yourself and your sweetheart when you truly listen.

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