Before You Apologize, Consider This

Apologizing is humbling, even difficult. It becomes even more difficult if you’ve ever experienced a time in which apologizing backfired and just made things worse. Or, if you have childhood memories of being forced to apologize for something you didn’t even do. Maybe that’s part of the issue. No one ever taught us how to apologize. In marriage, you will have plenty of opportunities to practice apologizing. It will go much more smoothly if you take a moment to learn how to apologize well. With that in mind, the first step in making an effective apology is to answer two question.

The first question: What motives underlie my desire to apologize? Why am I apologizing? Many times, we have poor motives for apologizing.

Husband coming home late to an angry wife who is holding a rolling pin
  • For instance, apologizing just to get back in good graces or to put the event behind us are bad motives for an apology. Your spouse will see through the apology to the motive and become even more upset.
  • Sometimes we apologize because we fear our spouse will dislike us or remain angry at us. We don’t like other people (especially our spouse) having negative emotions toward us. So, we apologize in an  attempt to free ourselves from being disliked, to free ourselves from the burden of another person’s negative emotions. It won’t work. It will only increase those negative emotions. You need a different motive.
  • Sometimes we apologize because we want our spouse to “forget it about it” and “get on with our happy marriage.” We apologize to get our spouse to “move on.” You’ve heard it, “Why are you still upset about this. I apologized.” Once again, won’t work.
  • Sometimes we are tempted to disguise our defense or justification for our action in an apology. These apologies start with an “I’m sorry” followed by a “but” that transforms the apology into a defense, justification, or blame. “I’m sorry, but you shouldn’t have….” “I’m sorry, but I was tired.” “I’m sorry, but you have to understand….” These apologies really aren’t apologies at all. Notice that each of the four motives mentioned so far focus on “me” and “my” relief. They will not work.
  • A motive for true apology is the recognition that I did something hurtful to my spouse. I did or said something wrong. I was thoughtless, rude, uncaring, hurtful. I love my spouse and I do not want to hurt them. As a result, I want to apologize for hurting them. I want to take ownership for my hurtful actions or words and apologize. I want to tell my spouse how I plan to avoid those hurtful words and deeds in the future. I apologize to sincerely express my sorrow for hurting the one I love and to explain my plan to avoid doing it again.

The second question: to whom am I going to apologize? Think about your spouse and their personality.

  • Some personalities welcome an apology. They are glad to hear the apology but become upset recalling the hurt for which you are apologizing. If you have experienced this in your marriage, know that your spouse needs a comprehensive apology. They also need you to stick with them so the two of you can process the original hurt. This will allow them to hear your true remorse and your plan to avoid hurting them in a similar way in the future. Don’t get caught up in their emotions. Stay calm. Stick with your apology. Listen, empathize, and restate your plan to change.  
  • Some personalities get uncomfortable with the vulnerability and emotion aroused by an apology. They often accept your apology with a quick “It’s alright” or “Don’t worry about it.”  Unfortunately, they may still hold some resentment even as they avoid talking about it. So, take a moment to let them know you are willing to talk more about it and answer any of their questions and fears any time they like. Then be willing to do so.

What are your motives for apologizing? What is the personality of the person to whom you are apologizing? Answering these two questions before you begin will make your apology more sincere and effective.

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