Dr. Peter PearsonBeing apologetic doesn’t come easily for me. Unfortunately, being inconsiderate and self-centered does. So I realized long ago that my marital survival would depend on two things: 1) learning to apologize and 2) becoming less selfish and more considerate.
It was easier to start with apologies. Over time I got better and better at learning how to apologize. I was amazed at the effect.
First, it was the basic mumbling of, “I’m sorry.” Those two words were remarkable in healing bruised feelings. It was as if I had a license to do what I wanted-- as long as I looked sincere and said, “I’m sorry.” It was like having a “Get out of jail free” Monopoly card.
When my apology failed to produce the desired results, I spruced it up. I would put my apology in a tuxedo, and my wife would be so grateful that I would get another reprieve.
Given my personality, I had lots of opportunity to practice making apologies. Ultimately I created a formula. It’s for the bigger offenses or for smaller offenses that you have repeated so often they’ve created a lot of tension with your spouse.
Five Step Formula For a Really Good Apology
1. Describe your offense. This is necessary so your partner knows exactly what you’re apologizing for.
2. Describe what you think is the effect on your partner. This display of empathy is comforting to the other person.
3. Describe why you did what you did. This reassures your spouse that you’re on top of the problem and reduces their need to nag you about it.
4. Describe why you’re interested in changing the offensive behavior. This demonstrates an understanding of the big picture that as couple you’re a team.
5. Describe a self imposed penalty for not changing. This one is the clincher. Think of an appropriate penalty for your offensive behavior, and tell it to your spouse. Tell them that if you don’t change you will impose the penalty on yourself. This reassures them that you mean business.
I encourage people to write their apology. Writing it out first or writing it and then giving it to your mate has several advantages:
1. You can collect and refine your thoughts. It is very difficult to think through an apology on the fly, especially if your angry partner is on the offensive.
2. You will be heard all the way through. Nobody will interrupt and start yelling at a spouse when they are reading an apology.
3. You avoid the hostile questions that often interrupt you when you start speaking the apology. These negative questions have the nasty effect of derailing your good intentions and then you just have another argument which demands another apology.
4. You avoid the raised eyebrows and squinting eyes during the apology which just derail you again. (See the last sentence in number 3.)
5. It looks like you have given this some serious thought (which might even be true).
6. You don’t have to sleep on the couch tonight.
Putting It All Together
1. Honey, I’ve been thinking about your comments that I don’t follow through consistently when I say I’ll do something. I apologize for that.
2. Being inconsistent means you can never be sure whether I will follow through or not. I imagine it keeps you on edge and wondering if you should “remind” me or not. If you don’t speak up you run the risk that I won’t follow through and then it is too late to take corrective action. If you do speak up, you run the risk of coming across like a nag.
3. I hate to admit it, but when I agree to something, sometimes it’s just to get you off my back. I think, “well, I’ll do it if I get time.” But if it’s something I really don’t want to do, often I simply don’t make the time. I’m also unreliable when my priorities collide with yours--and my priorities too often prevail. This means I really haven’t thought much about us being a true team where we can each count on the other to follow through.
4. I actually have some interest in improving my reliability. I would feel more aligned with my higher intentions about being a good partner, and we could probably have more fun together.
5. Finally, I want you to get off my back as a policeman to make sure I follow through. Both of us will feel better about that. So when I don’t follow through or give you a timely warning (stuff does happen) then I will work on cleaning the garage the following weekend for at least two hours every time I blow it.
Our book, “Tell Me No Lies,” includes some helpful insights about apologies. For more information or to order, visit The Couples Institute.
May all your apologies be little ones.Peter Pearson, Ph.D., and his wife Dr. Ellyn Bader, are founders of The Couples Institute in Menlo Park, CA. Since 1984, they have helped people create extraordinary relationships. Authors, speakers, and therapists, they have been featured on over 50 radio and TV programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News." For more information and to subscribe to their free monthly newsletter, "Love that Lasts," visit The Couples Institute.