Do You Ever Wish You Could Take Back Something You Said?

In loving relationships, you can find ways to retract hurtful words.

Posted Feb 06, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan

The topic of regret over public statements is back in the media with the February 4, 2021 attempt by U.S. Representative Marjorie Taylor to claim that she no longer believes in her prior conspiracy-based social media posts and speeches.

Wearing a facemask emblazoned with the words “Free Speech,” she stood before the podium in the House of Representatives and tried to take back her previous claims: “I was allowed to believe things that weren’t true and I would ask questions about them and talk about them, and that is absolutely what I regret.” Greene made these statements to avoid being removed from her committee assignments, but her efforts came to no avail.

Although Greene never actually apologized, her statement of “regret” might have implied that she felt she was in the wrong. Analyzing her comments further, and considering the somewhat contradictory message conveyed by her facemask, you might notice that she uses the passive voice in describing why she made those statements (i.e. “I was allowed to believe…"). As you ponder this situation, does it remind you of times you tried to take back something you said that created havoc in your own life?

Although Greene’s remarks were prepared ahead of time, it’s possible that when you’ve said something you wish you hadn’t, it was done hastily in the heat of the moment. In an instant, words come out of your mouth that you can’t push back in.

Perhaps your partner prepared a time-intensive meal and serves it up to you with pride. Waiting eagerly for your reaction, your partner is crestfallen when you say “Honey, it’s good, but the meat is a little tough.” Storming out of the room, your partner vows never again to work so hard to feed someone so undeserving of this attention. No amount of back-tracking seems to have an effect on your partner, and in addition to ruining the meal, you’ve created a wedge that will be hard to remove.

It’s not unusual for couples to run into these sorts of messy situations given the many daily experiences that they share. However, to get past these rifts, is it better communication they need, or something else? According to Seattle University’s Enrico Gnaulati (2020), writing about a new approach to couples therapy, “There is an emerging perspective that what troubled couples need help with is not better communication skills per se but the actualization of more love and consideration for each other” (p. 2). A happy couple, he goes on to note, isn’t conflict-free. It’s one, based on previous research, in which the partners can “manage” those inevitable conflicts.

From a theoretical perspective known as existentialism, that management can occur best when couples accept the “seeming banality of couples’ avowed problems [such as] mismatches in preferred bedroom temperatures, … divergent tastes in leisure and entertainment (p. 2).” In this approach, you wouldn’t pretend you didn’t say what you said about the meal or worse, pretend it didn’t happen. You would, instead, accept responsibility. As Gnaulati notes, “It takes humility to admit wrongdoing… words have consequences; and that to believe we should be able to mouth off with impunity is somewhat of an atomistic delusion” (p. 8). To translate, this means that you can’t separate yourself from your partner because the two of you influence and are influenced by each other. You're not separate atoms that never bounce into each other.

As Gnaulati goes on to observe, it wouldn’t help your relationship to downplay your hurtful words but instead to accept your role in making your partner unhappy. In therapy, he notes, he would actually use “therapeutic guilt inducement” (p. 8). Citing the case of one couple in treatment, it was Gnaulati's expression of the husband’s guilt that ultimately led him to issue a sincere apology, which in turn prompted the wife’s forgiveness. In a way, the wife felt better because the husband felt worse.

For that apology to work, Gnaulati points out, there can be no “but” tagged on to reduce the apologizer’s sincerity. From the recipient’s point of view, furthermore, the relationship’s repair progresses when there’s no expanding of the dispute to areas outside of the immediate situation such as bringing the partner’s “character flaws” into the equation.

Returning to the question of guilt, what Gnaulati calls “anticipatory guilt” can prevent you from making those insensitive comments in the first place. When your partner serves you this elegant meal, stop and think before you utter your hurtful words. It’s not that you’re being dishonest, but instead that you’re thinking about the situation from your partner’s point of view. Citing previous authors, the Seattle psychologist suggests that there’s no need for you to be “completely” pleased before you offer a compliment. Yes, the meat may be tough, but maybe the sauce is delicious. Go ahead and comment on that.

Driving all of this theory is, according to Gnaulait, is the recognition that loving couples are able to move past these hiccups in their communication. Again, returning to the existential viewpoint, the realization that life is fragile and that everyone dies can lead couples to “live their lives more deliberately and purposefully in the present” (p. 12). The therapist’s job, from this point of view, is to help couples understand the “preeminent value of loving relationships.”

From the Gnaulati paper, you can see how that although you can’t always stop your mouth from saying something you regret, you can accept the fact that you said it. At that point, a sincere apology can help reduce the damage. In the process, you can further help the healing by showing you're open to hearing how your partner took this remark.

You can now more clearly see the flaw in Greene’s statement of “regret.” Her use of the passive voice is the exact opposite of the kind of “humble” apology that the Gnaulati approach recommends. It’s true that Greene wasn’t talking about anything even remotely like a close personal relationship, but the principle still applies. Were she able to put her words into active voice, leaving out the “led to believe” part, it’s possible that she could take Step #1 to repair her damaged reputation with her colleagues.

To sum up, everyone says things they wish they hadn’t said. Your ability to own those words that you wish you could take back can pave the way to restoring and even improving relationships with the people you care about the most.

References

Gnaulati, E. (2020). Supplanting prideful monologue with humble dialogue: A dialogical existential approach to couples therapy. The Humanistic Psychologist. doi 10.1037/hum0000185