Off the Couch

Thoughts about the therapeutic process, and the dynamics of client-therapist interactions.

Why Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word

Expert insights on why we avoid apologies.

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Many years ago, my husband and I had hired a babysitter and were out on a “date night.” As we stood in line to go to a movie, he nodded at someone who was passing by and then said to me, “He’s on a date night, too. Just not with his wife.” The man, whom he knew from the gym, was always talking about how easy it was to be unfaithful. “You don't have to say 'sorry.' All you have to do is bring her flowers or jewelry, and she’ll forgive you anything,” he told his locker buddies.

I think about that man from time to time, especially when I’m working with couples who desperately wantbut can’t getan apology from one another. He was not a young man, and he had been married to the same woman for many years. In fact, he described his marriage as happy and successful. If this was true, did his wife know about his infidelity? And if so, why was she willing to forgive him for his infidelity, not just once, but many times? Of course I don’t know anything about her side of the story, but I have known other womenand men as wellwho have made peace with what might seem to be unacceptable behavior on the part of a spouse. Why?

Often, it seems, the answer lies in how the person apologizes. But what makes one apology acceptable and another one not? What makes it possible for some people to say they’re sorry and impossible for others? And what makes one person forgive and another hold a grudge forever?

I think the answer lies in a relational-attachment framethat is, we develop a sense of well-being in the context of our secure connections to others. Our sense of who we are and how we are is reinforced through our relationships with the important people in our lives. Apologies and forgiveness are cycled through relational interactions that either reinforce or disrupt our sense of security, trust in others and feelings of self-worth.  

My PT colleague Andrea Brandt has captured this relational-attachment-self-esteem cycle perfectly. She writes:

When an offense occurs, we want to know the offender understands that we were upset as a result of their actions. If an apology is forthcoming, we also want to feel that it is sincere—that the other person is truly sorry for hurting our feelings. And we need assurance that the offense won’t happen again.

In other words, when someone hurts our feelings, we want to know that they understand how we feel and that they are sorry that they are responsible for making us feel this way. We don’t want them to blame us for their behavior, which is perhaps the number one reason that many apologies don’t work. It is also why gifts don’t always work. No one wants to be bought off. But we will accept many hurts as long as our pain is acknowledged and our feelings are recognized.

In couples work, it is often difficult to get either partner to be the first to apologize. I call this the “blame game.” It goes something like this:

“Last night you didn’t call to say you’d be late. You know I worry. I was so anxious I couldn’t do anything all evening. You could have just texted or something.”

“Well, you were out late the week before.”

“Yes, but I told you ahead of time that I was going out with my friends.”

“You’re so controlling.”

“No, I’m not. I’m just asking you to take some responsibility. It’s common courtesy to let someone know if you’re going to be late.”

In this interchange, the relational-attachment-self-esteem cycle gets kidnapped by the need to avoid blame. My PT colleague Guy Winch writes that people who cannot or will not apologize are trying to manage their own feelings, often of shame, by not opening the apology door.

The fear for many couples is that acknowledging a partner’s accurate criticism and taking responsibility for one’s behavior can reinforce a painful negative self-image. Blaming the other person is a little like employing the old children’s rhyme, “I’m rubber and you’re glue. Everything you say bounces off me and sticks to you.” The implication is that I’m not the bad oneyou are.

On the other hand, too much apologizing can be as bad as not enough. In a NY Times blog Audrey S. Lee writes that over-apologizing, which worked well in her family and culture while she was growing up, didn’t work so well when she entered the work world: 

I would often start and end my conversations with the word “sorry”—sorry for bothering you, sorry for the bad news, sorry this issue came up, sorry for asking questions… But that approach didn’t work as well when I entered the workplace, especially in my job at a high-tech company where I had to interact with many teams and senior managers.

Finally, an executive told her, “Stop saying ‘sorry’! You don’t need to unless you really did do something wrong, O.K.? The team and customers will think that you aren’t confident when you always apologize.” She realized that what her family took as proper courtesy, her bosses and colleagues experienced as a lack of confidence. Saying “sorry” too often can also diminish its meaningfulness, making it seem easy, glib, and empty. Like the blame game, it disrupts the relational-attachment-self-esteem cycle by reflecting something about the apologizer, not the person to whom the apology is given.

My PT colleague Melissa Orlov offers this extremely useful suggestion for saying sorry:  

Next time you need to apologize for something that was a breach of trust, make it straightforward and without caveat. Suggest a way you yourself can correct the problem. Validate your partner's hurt over the long haul. Seek to address your underlying issues in a constructive way. Listen to how your partner responds. You'll find it's the best kind of apology.

Ultimately, this is what an apology is meant to dorepair damage done to a trusting and mutually supportive relationship by acknowledging pain caused, accepting responsibility, and expressing sincere regret at having done something hurtful to a person we care about.

 

These are just some ideas about apologizing and being apologized to. Please let me know what thoughts you have about the blame/apology relational cycle. What has been the most successful form of apology you’ve ever received? What about the worst? How do you feel when you apologize to someone voluntarily? What about when you’re forced to apologize? I look forward to reading your comments.

Teaser image source:istock11429087

F. Diane Barth, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist, teacher, and author in private practice in New York City.

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