Having mediated domestic disputes for 30 years, it has occurred to me that men and women regard apologies very differently. And simple as it may seem, these different views of apology have extensively damaged many marriages.
In short, most men don't know how to apologize. In intimate relationships, an effective apology can quickly heal an inadvertent injury. Similarly, an ineffective apology — or the complete failure of an apology — can cause an inadvertent injury to be experienced as a major wound in the relationship.
For women, apologizing is a way of reconnecting with someone whose feelings you have hurt, however inadvertently. When a woman gets feedback that something she has done or failed to do has left another feeling offended or injured, she is usually quick to apologize. A breach in the relationship is avoided and the relationship continues undisturbed. Neither the woman offering nor the woman receiving the apology regard it as unusual but rather see it as a routine aspect of relationships.
For men, apologies are very different. Men tend to view apologies as humiliating and a loss of face. Scholars of gender communication have observed that for men, verbal communication is tied up with their concern for the way their status is perceived by others. Men are more conscious of the impact of what they say on how others perceive their power position, or lack of power. So, for a man to acknowledge that he has done something wrong, it often means that he feels diminished in the eyes of those who hear the apology.
Thus, a woman apologizes to maintain healthy relationships and feels no sense of loss. But when a man apologizes, he does feel a sense of loss, if not humiliation. The result of this difference is that men are reluctant to apologize, and in many cases, do not know how to craft a sincere apology.
It is this lack of knowledge I seek to address here. Most of the women in the couples I see for divorce mediation complain that their marriages suffer from a terminal lack of intimacy. The wives report that their husbands are unable or unwilling to respond to their feelings. They say their husband's tendency to stonewall when presented with a complaint leaves them feeling disconnected and alienated from him.
It appears that in most modern marriages, the woman is angry at her mate more often than the reverse. Women express anger at their husband's sins of commission as well as sins of omission. And the most common sin of omission is his failure to apologize when he has offended. So here is a brief tutorial for men on how to apologize.
There are six elements of a proper apology. If you don't want to waste your time, you must include all six:
1. Acknowledge the Wrongful Act
You need to begin by saying, " I was wrong and I am sorry." There are no substitutes for this admission. If you say something dumb like, "I am sorry that you think I was wrong," you might as well spare yourself and not bother. There is no getting around it. You were wrong, so plead guilty and get on with it.
2. Acknowledge That You Hurt her Feelings
Understand that your wrongful act has hurt her feelings and made her feel disconnected from you. You cannot reconnect without attending to the feelings piece. So you say, "I was wrong and I am sorry that I have hurt your feelings." Once again, you cannot wimp out by fudging and saying ," I am sorry that your feelings are hurt." You have to connect your wrongful act to her hurt feelings.
3. Express Your Remorse
An expression of remorse and regret is the way you demonstrate your ability to feel an appropriate response to her hurt feelings. So you say, "I was wrong. I am sorry that I hurt your feelings, and I feel terrible that I have done something that has hurt you." (It will help here if you actually look remorseful.)
4. State Your Intention Not to Repeat It
This may be difficult — particularly if you are a repeat offender — but it is an expression of your acknowledgement of your need to reform. "I know that I am sometimes insensitive to what you need, but I am going to try my hardest not to do it again." If you smirk at this juncture, you're going to have to go back and start all over.
5. Offer to Make Amends
If you don't know what would help, then ask her. "What can I do to make it up to you?" The particular act of contrition may be negotiated, but the important thing is to express your willingness to do something to compensate for it. Of course, once you commit to do something, you need to do it, lest you render the entire effort useless.
6. Seek Forgiveness
Forgiving is an act that liberates the forgiver from anger — so seeking forgiveness is not as self-serving as you may think. A simple, "will you forgive me?" will usually suffice, but if you want to avoid appearing presumptuous, or if your offense was particularly odious, you might want to first ask, "Can you forgive me?"
As you get better at it, you will feel more comfortable creating your own sequence for these elements and add embellishments that give it your own stamp of individuality. Master this simple skill, and you will find your domestic life ever more peaceful.