In order to improve your relationships
Posted May 26, 2019
During arguments, couples can become so fixated on demanding an apology from their partner that nothing else seems to matter. “Just say you’re sorry!” Sadly, on the rare occasions that their partner is willing to succumb to this browbeating, the tepid, coerced apology that follows is almost never satisfying. The apology is not satisfying, because the aggrieved partner is pushing for an admission of guilt, a humiliating confession, rather than the kind of courageous, intimate exchange that has the potential to be healing for both. We sometimes offer up a false apology in the face of this kind of pressure. These false apologies don’t come from having really looked at our part of the conflict; they are not an expression of empathy for the impact of our behavior on our partner. They are simply a defensive maneuver, designed to get our partner off our backs. What we are really saying is not “I’m sorry,” but “please stop being angry at me.”
Best-selling author Eve Ensler’s new book The Apology (2019) is a powerful description of the apology that she needed to hear, but never did, from her father, who sexually abused her as a young child. When we misstep, when we behave in ways that are hurtful to someone we care about, rather than the avoidant shortcut of a forced apology, here are four steps to help us offer what is needed to heal the relationship.
1. When your partner is hurt, the first thing she needs to know is that you understand how she feels on her terms, not yours. This is not just a matter of repeating back to her what she said. Parroting back what she’s said and then complaining “but I am listening to you!” is not at all helpful. Nobody feels heard or knows that you care if you just repeat back what they said. You have to also listen between the lines, use your intuition to go beyond the concrete words and get to the deeper sense of what she is talking about.
2. The second and more important step, and the one that people sadly often leave out, is to take responsibility for the impact of your behavior. This does not mean saying you were wrong. It’s not about right or wrong. It’s about acknowledging that you understand how your behavior has impacted someone you love. Whether or not you meant to hurt her is largely irrelevant, and falling back on that is just a way to dodge acknowledging that you hurt someone.
3. Your partner needs to know that hurting her matters to you, that you have some personal reaction to her being hurt, and that it has some impact on you. You have to be willing to put a little skin in the game, dig a little deeper in yourself, and share with her some of how you are feeling in response to her feelings. This is what empathy is.
4. Lastly, you have to be willing to give her some realistic indication of what you are willing to do to decrease the likelihood of hurting her in this way in the future. Don’t promise you won’t do it again, because you almost certainly will. Most of the significant hurts in couples come from people acting out their own deeply ingrained characterological patterns. Much as you might try, it is highly unlikely that you are going to be able to change that overnight. It’s not a measure of how much you care about someone, but of how deeply ingrained these patterns are. The fact is that we actually unconsciously choose a mate precisely because s/he is likely to play out these exact same patterns that are so hurtful to us, but that’s a matter for another column.
If you are both willing to work on these four steps, you may find your arguments less intimidating, have less reason to avoid them, and may even come to welcome conflict with your partner as an opportunity to work things through and feel closer with each other.
Ensler, E. (2019) The Apology. Bloomsbury Group.