Couples need clean-up routines.
How do couples recover from misunderstandings?

Woops. Upsets can flare up from nowhere, even in the best of relationships.   No need to let emotional debts mount until they add up to major problems between the two of you

Both at work and at home, effective apologies replenish your goodwill account.  They're essential, especially for on-going relationships like with treasured friends, work colleagues and loved ones.  Debt is problematic in any relationship love-account.  Better to stay debt-free. 

Couples who apologize well and sweetly actually find that they grow closer as a result of their goofs.  Couples who lack this skill set are at risk for continuing on an ever-worsening collision course, or for distancing from each other until they part ways altogether.

Yet surprisingly few couples have a reliable recipe for effective apologies.  This one is worth memorizing, or keeping on hand where you can easily retrieve it when you need it.

Incurring an emotional debt

Sondra hadn't intended to work late on Wednesday evening, but when she looked up from her computer, the clock showed a good half hour past her usual departure. 

"Oh no!" Sondra panicked.  "We're supposed to be at a dinner party tonight.  We'll be late!"

Sondra dashed home to pick up her husband.  Jason was happily buried in a novel, cello music in the background and a cutting board with cheese and French bread on the table at his side. 

"Hurry!" Sondra called, jarring Jason to quick attention.  Jason slowly rose, padding around in his socks and wondering where he'd left his shoes. 

"We're late.  Let's go.  Turn on the gas!" With increasing impatience Sondra repeatedly urged Jason to move faster.

In the car Sondra could see Jason's out-of-joint frown.  "What's on your mind?" she asked, still agitated about how late they would be to the dinner party. 

"I hate being yelled at."

"Who yelled?  I didn't yell at you did I?" asked Sondra, genuinly concerned. 

"You've been yelling at me since the moment you walked in the door." Jason said quietly.

Clearing an emotional debt: the 5 steps of effective apologies

Sondra was sure she hadn't yelled, but defensively proclaiming her innocence would just add to the tensions. 

Sondra suddently remembered: negative feelings indicate it's time for an apology. 

Sondra checked to be sure she had the necessary ingredients: One person with hurt feelings.  Another who wants to make the situation better.  Injury on the one hand, good will on the other. 

"I wish I had my cookbook with me," Sondra thought.  "Can I remember all five apology steps? Whatever, I'll go for it."

  1. Express regret, with specificity: "I'm sorry about my ______." An apology that's too general will be ineffective.  Specify exactly the action you did that created injury to convey that you are sorry for it. Specify the harm or negative emotion that the other person experienced to convey that you understand and empathize with the impact of your action.  

"I'm sorry Jason about my tone of voice having come across as angry. I see now that you felt criticized and hurt from the irritation in my voice. 

     2.  Add a statement of non-intentionality: Clarify that you meant no harm to be sure the apology is soothing.  Again, specificity helps, both about your action and about the hurt that the other experienced.

"I certainly hadn't intended to sound mad and definitely didn't mean to hurt your feelings."

    3.  Find the Miss-: What was the miss ?  A mistake, misperception, misunderstanding, miscommunication, mishap, etc? "I can see now that I mis_______ that _______."

"I mis-estimated how harsh I sounded.  I was anxious about how my friend Lila will feel when we arrive late.  Her dinner is a surprise party for her husband.  With hindsight though I can see how my voice could have sounded mad.  Now that I think about it I probably was a bit irritated also at how slowly you were moving."

    4.  Add restitution: Figure out what you need to do to fix the harm created by your mistaken action.

"I do love you. I feel terrible that my tone of voice hurt your feelings," Sondra said tenderly, gently stroking Jason's knee as he kept on driving.

"Thanks honey.  I'm probably hyper-sensitive.  I experience even the slightest hint of irritation in your voice as yelling."

    5.  Conclude with learning: What will you do differently next time to prevent a similar mishap? "In the future when___________ I will _____________."

"Next time when I'm anxious or rushed," Sondra continued, "I think I'd better pause a second to tell you my concern.  If I had taken a minute to tell you how I felt terrible about being late for a surprise party, would that have helped?"

Jason grinned.  "You bet!  I'm less likely to take things personally when I know what's going on.  And at the same time, next time I think you're yelling at me I could ask what's the problem.  When I clam up and slow down because my feelings are hurt I probably just increase your frustration and invite you to send more irritation in my direction."

"Thanks Jason," Sondra responded, fondly appreciating Jason's ability to see his part in their upset.  "If you weren't driving, I'd hug you..."

The Outcome

Sondra and Jason's 5-ingredient apology took at most two minutes.  For more serious grievances, each of the apology ingredients may need to be added slowly, one by one, with considerable discussion.  After a major grievance like a marital infidelity, dishonesty of any type, alcoholic misbehavior, or abusive words or action, each ingredient may need to be reiterated and discussed at length, and multiple times over, to fully clean up and learn from the error.  


This apology recipe does have one tricky element.  Complaining about other person's errors or telling your partner what to do differently in the future spoils the recipe. 

To insure that the outcome will be yummy, not sour, keep your focus on yourself.  Do self-scrutiny.  Identify and learn from your own mistakes.  That way you'll cook up the kind of nourishing renewal of affection that feeds a delicious relationship future for both of you.

When is this recipe appropriate to use?

You incur an emotional debt any time something you have said or done leaves the person you were interacting with feeling troubled or hurt.  Clear the debt as soon as possible.  Especially with folks close to you, your apology insures that the emotional debt will quickly be repaid, keeping positive feelings between you strong. 

Looking forward to your next relationship or marriage problem so you can try the recipe yourself? 


(c) Susan Heitler, PhD
Source: (c) Susan Heitler, PhD

Denver clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D, a graduate of Harvard and NYU, is author of Power of Two, a book, a workbook, and a website that teach the skills that sustain goodwill in relationships.  

Click here for a free Power of Two relationship quiz. 

Dr. Heitler's latest book, Prescriptions Without Pills, adds further ideas for recovering from upsets, especially when you feel depression, angry, or anxious about what happened.