How to Apologize Even When You Didn’t Mean To Cause A Problem: Couple’s Communication Counseling Verbatim

If you’ve accidentally done something your partner is angry about, you may think you should be forgiven automatically, just because your intentions were good—or at least not malicious. Your partner may disagree. Just admitting that you have done something is NOT the same thing as apologizing to your partner for your behavior. And just saying “I’m sorry” may not be enough either. After a long conversation a couple I was working with sorted out the facts about a complicated disagreement. Although they now agreed on the facts, she was still angry with him. They agreed to let me share this conversation because they hope you can learn from their experience.

The Conversation

She: I want an apology! I have valid information, a lot of the time, and I’m angry because you just don’t listen to me! (He says nothing.) She: Do agree with me? He: (woodenly) Yes it’s true. I caused the problem because I didn’t have the information. You did tell me about it ahead of time. I didn’t listen to you. I don’t listen about other things too. I don’t read instructions. I don’t understand what’s going on, and I make mistakes. She: (really angry) You don’t give a rat’s ass about what I’m talking about do you? Me: (to him) Now she is back to telling you about her resentments. It’s because you haven’t apologized. You admitted that you caused the problem, but that’s not the same thing as apologizing. He: I told her that I do it in other situations. It happens over and over again. Me: Do you know what an apology is? He: I thought I told her I made a mistake and that she’s right. Me: You told her about what was going on in your mind. That isn’t an apology. It may be part of an apology. But you’ve left out any thing to do with her feelings about the problem you caused. You’re only talking about yourself. Me: (to her). Isn’t that why you’re still angry? She: Yeah, he never apologizes.

The Conversation Continues

Me: (to him) (He’s looking at the ceiling in exasperation.). Look at me. If this is true for you, repeat it to her. I’m sorry that you felt embarrassed, because of how I acted. If I had listened to what you told me I would have acted differently. I understand why you felt embarrassed by what I did and I’m sorry I put you in that position. (Long pause) He: (thoughtfully and sincerely). I’m sorry about a lot of things about that night. I’m sorry, you wound up feeling so badly because of what I did. I’m really sorry I didn’t listen, because if I had we wouldn’t have had this problem. Me: (to her). How do you feel now? She: I feel good. I’m not angry anymore. Me: (to him) Why was it so difficult for you to decide to actually say those words? He: (after another very long pause) I wanted her to tell me she understood my position — but I didn’t intend to do anything wrong. Me: If you know you’ve caused a problem, you’re more likely to get the acknowledgment you want if you tell her that you know and care about how she feels first. After you have apologized by saying, “I’m sorry about the impact my behavior had on you”, you can just add, “I did it accidentally. I didn’t intend to hurt you.” She: If you did that, I really would be happy to listen to why you did it. Me: (to him). I think you get into trouble with other people too, by refusing to apologize because they haven’t acknowledged your position. Is that right? He: (thoughtfully after a very long pause). How can I remember to apologize first? (He is often thinking when it looks like nothing is happening. He isn’t aware of the effect those long pauses have on other people. I’ll talk about that another time. I think he’s asked an important question.). She: I can help with that. If you don’t apologized to me, I’ll remind you. And you know, it’s really natural for me to want to understand you after you show me that you understand my feelings.

Holding Resentment Won’t Solve Anything

Resentments are signal that this situation isn’t complete. An apology helps complete an incomplete situation. When resentments come up over and over again, as they do with many couples, it often means that a heartfelt apology is needed. A detailed apology must include more than a statement of facts and an admission of wrongdoing. Actually sometimes it doesn’t even need to include either the facts or an admission of guilt. Sometimes you may not agree that you have done anything wrong. Sometimes the law of unintended consequences is operating and your good intentions produced an unexpected problem for your partner. However, even if you’re not sorry for what you did, aren’t you sorry that your partner is unhappy about the results? That’s what you need to apologize for. The core of an apology needs to include proof (to your partner) that you understand and care about how your partner FEELS about what has happened. Once your partner understands that you really care, your apology may be complete. Of course, if the problem is something that keeps happening, that probably won’t be enough. She or he may insist that the apology is meaningless until you change your behavior. Resentments tend to disappear once a complete apology is made and accepted. It’s kind of like scratching an itch in the right place—the itch goes away.


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