"Maybe you should apologize to her."
"I keep hoping there's a less obvious solution."
-Calvin and Hobbes, February 1986
Even ten years after the cartoon left the papers, I'm still waiting for Calvin and Hobbes to make a comeback. There's something about Bill Watterson's comic strip that reflects a great deal of reality with a load of humor, and the above exchange is no exception. For some reason, many of us find it very difficult to apologize. Those two immortal words "I'm sorry" seem to either get stuck in our throats or come out sounding fake and insincere. This is a phenomenon that affects all relationships, but nowhere is it as widespread as it is in marriage. Why is that? Why is it easy to apologize to the lady at the checkout counter, but when faced with our spouses we get tongue -tied? Why is it that we can get the words out when we've offended a fellow employee, but can't do the same for our partners in life? (Well, the first thing we can do is take comfort in the fact that there is a precedent for our difficulties. From the beginning of time, apologies have proven to be a challenge to mankind. Adam and Eve had a hard time apologizing to G-d; Cain couldn't admit that he had committed a wrong when he killed Abel. So we're not alone in this one.) The easy way out is to say that people who can't apologize are just selfish. They're bad. But that's an unfair assessment, as well as an incorrect one. Although there may be some people out there who can't apologize because they're so totally focused on themselves that they can't see anyone else, most people don't follow that rule. Most people have trouble making apologies because of the opposite reason - they're very good people. Huh? That's right. They're very good people. They're just perfectionists to one degree or another. And perfectionists will generally find it difficult to say, "I'm sorry", because they find the thought of having done something wrong so unbelievably overwhelming. They can't handle it emotionally, and so apologizing is a very difficult task for them. A corollary to this is that some people really try very hard to do the right thing. They try to be nice, they try to be considerate, they try to be helpful. And when they see that their efforts to please have backfired, it's just a tremendous letdown. Facing that letdown is painful, and so apologizing becomes an emotional hurdle to overcome. The underlying current beneath all of this is pride. Not necessarily selfish, arrogant pride, but the pride we take in who we are and what we do. In other words, our self esteem. And when we have to admit that we're wrong - which means that we're admitting that the other person is right - that pinches us right where it hurts. It deflates our self esteem. At this point you might be wondering, "So what if it's hard for me to apologize? Everyone has their weak spots; mine is saying I'm sorry. Is it so crucial? What's the big deal?" I'll answer these questions with one of my own, which Dr. Meir Wikler, a renowned psychiatrist in the New York area, asks his audiences when lecturing on this topic: What are the three most important words in marriage? I know what you're thinking. You're one third right. The first word is "I"; but the third word is not "you." Give up? Okay. The three most important words in marriage are: "I WAS WRONG." There is nothing that can diffuse a tense situation between husband and wife than one or the other (or both!) looking each other in the eye and saying, "Honey, I apologize. I was wrong." As soon as those words are thrown into the air, something magical happens. All the defenses go down. The emotional barometer goes back to normal. The tension and anger are immediately replaced by an atmosphere of love and good will. So now that we know how important apologies are, how can we overcome our difficulties in delivering them? We need to realize that apologizing is a skill. And, like any skill that doesn't come naturally, you have to learn how to do it. There is more to apologizing than just saying, "I'm sorry." There are actually five elements that need to be covered in order for an apology to be truly effective: 1) Acknowledge what you did. If you're not sure, here's a great solution - ask! 2) Acknowledge the effect it had (or must have had) on your spouse and on his/her feelings. 3) Express your regret. 4) Express your resolve not to make the same mistake again. 5) Only now can you ask for forgiveness. Here's an example: Jack sees that his wife Linda is giving off insulted-vibes. Her demeanor suggests that it's his fault, but he doesn't remember having said or done anything wrong. Here is the way that Jack should NOT handle this: Jack: You know, Linda, the way you're sulking around is not enhancing the atmosphere. What happened? That kind of opening is going to blow Linda's fuse. Here's what Jack should say: Jack: Linda, I see that you're upset, and I'm getting the impression that something I may have done has caused it. Could you tell me what I did so that I can make amends? Linda: You really don't know? Jack: No, Lin, I really don't. But I'd appreciate it if you would tell me. At this point, Linda can already see that Jack sincerely wants her to feel better, even though he has no clue what he did. Her defenses are coming down even before he apologizes. Linda: Well, you remember last night at the restaurant? Your comment about my job really insulted me. Now, here it comes: Jack: Linda, I'm really sorry. It was wrong of me to speak without thinking. (1) That comment must have made you feel that I don't value your job or your efforts to contribute to the family income. (2) It was totally unintentional, and nothing could be further from the truth. I feel terrible about making you feel that way. (3) In the future, I'll try to think a little harder before I speak. Your feelings are very important to me. (4) Do you forgive me? (5) Linda, of course, forgives him immediately, and their marriage is fortified. Occasionally, a card or small gift can accompany an apology, especially if the issue was a major one. It doesn't have to be anything you pay an arm or a leg for - save those extravagant gifts for real occasions - but it can help to emphasize your sincerity and your desire to patch things up Too bad Calvin didn't see this article.
Reframing Your Marriage | The 5 Word Formula to Make Your Marriage Work - Part 2 | The 5 Word Formula to Make Your Marriage Work | The 3 Main Challenges to Marriage - Part III | The 3 Main Challenges in Marriage - Part II | The 3 Main Challenges to Marriage - Part I | See More »