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5 Ways to Recover From Mistakes in Your Relationship

2. Say you're sorry, and then stop apologizing.

Key points

  • When a mistake is made, asking for another try can be a powerful way to show good intentions.
  • Ways to employ this technique include changing your habits, showing intent, and paying it forward.
  • In some cases, professional help may be needed.
Simone van den Berg/Shutterstock
Source: Simone van den Berg/Shutterstock

Let’s face it: We all make mistakes. Sometimes I snap at my husband when I’m tired or forget about plans I made with a friend. I’ve learned the hard way that trying to ignore these blunders can strain my relationships, which only compounds the original error. That’s why I’ve started to employ an old childhood strategy: the do-over. It’s like an apology wrapped in a second chance.

“Many people have difficulty admitting their big and little slip-ups,” says Hamilton Beazley, author of No Regrets. “Asking for a do-over is a way to show respect for others as well as strengthen your own integrity.” There are some mistakes you can never take back. But in most cases, asking for another try can be a powerful way to show good intentions. Of course, asking is sometimes the hardest part.

Here are five ways to employ the do-over technique.

1. Change your habits.

Long-term relationships are based on habits. I’ll be the first to admit that mine are not all good ones: When my husband strolls in the door at night, I’m usually elbow-deep in fixing dinner with the remnants of my half-done to-do list whipping through my mind. He’s told me time and again that he needs 15 minutes to unwind, but I often start barking orders without even thinking. Old habits are tough to break, but I’ve learned to catch myself—sometimes, mid-sentence. A quick adjustment—“Wait, let me try that again"—goes a long way in showing him that I’m trying.

2. Stop apologizing.

“Men and women both have a horrendous time apologizing to their partner, but a do-over can take the place of an apology for some of the everyday mistakes we all make,” explains Ellyn Bader, Ph.D., co-director of The Couples Institute in Menlo Park, California. “When an apology is in order, instead of feeling like you’re being forced to eat crow, try looking at it as a positive way to show your love. This makes saying, ‘Let’s try that again,’ an incredibly intimate gesture, a place from which healing can begin—and, sometimes, romance.”

3. Walk the talk: Show intent.

For major wrongdoings, saying “I’m sorry” is essential, but it’s often just the beginning. “If your mistake is morally reprehensible—a lie that affects your entire family or breaking a major vow—the real proof of your intent is in the planning and execution of the do-over,” says Bader, who cites the example of a client who cheated on his wife. The husband had been sneaking around, and the do-over plan called for him to tell his wife everything: He began to tell his wife when his ex-mistress called or sent him presents—and he returned the presents (but not the phone calls). This continual honesty enabled his wife to slowly start trusting him again.

4. Pay it forward.

Can you give someone a do-over even if they don’t even ask for one? “When it comes to everyday screw-ups—forgetting to pick up the dry cleaning, snapping unnecessarily once in a while, or being perpetually late for date night—you can either get angry and hold a grudge or let it go,” says M.J. Ryan, author of The Happiness Makeover. “Try thinking of your relationship as an emotional bank account. If your spouse is overall supportive and loving, your balance is going to be high and you can afford to give him a penalty-free withdrawal once in a while.”

5. Ask for help.

Sometimes, we may need to get help with all aspects of the do-over, from accepting responsibility to creating a plan to rectify the slip-up. Here are some signs that professional intervention may be in order:

  • The apology doesn’t feel sincere. There can’t be a do-over without intent to change or the belief that change will actually happen.
  • Hurtful interactions, such as put-downs or criticism, keep happening. “Sometimes, old habits of communication are so ingrained that they are difficult to break even with the best intentions,” says Beazley.
  • There’s no agreement on a plan of action. It’s critical that both parties are on the same page about how to walk the talk of the do-over.

Jennifer Haupt is a freelance writer in Seattle, Washington.