Master therapist (and co-founder of the Couples Institute) Ellyn Bader notes that several myths can render an apology meaningless and even useless. After debunking these myths, she offers a path for repair that is more effective than a glib or quick apology.
Myth #1: If I disagree with my partner’s feelings, I’m entitled to defend myself.
While it may be legitimate that you didn’t intend to cause your partner pain, you apparently did; and you can’t change that experience for them. Comments like: “you are just over-sensitive” or “Why are you making such a big deal out of this?” serve only to minimize your partner’s feelings and deepen the disconnect.
Myth #2: If I apologize to my partner, that means I agree with what s/he is accusing me of.
Apologizing is not about accepting blame, but rather about acknowledging and responding to your partner’s emotional pain, regardless of how guilty or innocent you deem yourself in the situation.
Myth #3: If I acknowledge my partner’s pain, I am being a doormat.
Quite adversely, it takes a lot of strength of character to stay grounded, to really listen to your partner, to ask curious questions, and to put yourself in his/her shoes.
Myth #4: If I apologize, my side of the story will not be heard and I will be forever misunderstood.
When your partner has been heard and is in a space to listen, you can share what was going on for you at the time. Knee-jerk defensiveness and rationalizing away why you did nothing wrong, on the other hand, do little to lay the groundwork for a peaceful exploration of the misunderstanding.
Myth #5: If I say I’m sorry, I did my part.
A glib “I’m sorry” rarely does the trick. Generally speaking, an apology is more meaningful and effective after you have expressed your understanding of how your blunder hurt your partner, and have suggested steps you might take collaboratively to prevent it from happening again.
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A more rewarding path than defensiveness or a quick, glib apology looks like this:
1. Stay with the discomfort that comes from exploring your partner’s disappointment.
Ask questions with the goal of trying to understand your partner: “How did you interpret my actions/behavior while it was happening?” “What do you wish I had done differently?”
2. Reflect back what you are hearing your partner say.
Challenging as it is to stay present when you don’t like what you are hearing, repeat back what you are hearing to ensure you are getting an accurate read (paying attention to your body language and tone of voice).
Try to put yourself in your partner’s shoes, and to understand why this might have been hurtful to them.
Summarize what you have heard: “When I forgot about the event you had bought tickets for and I didn’t show up, you felt hurt and angry; it made you feel I don’t care about you or our relationship. That sounds awful. I never intend to cause those feelings in you.”
5. Invite a discussion about how to prevent a relapse.
Taking some accountability and considering ways to prevent the problem from reoccurring is the most powerful (and soothing) way to convey that you DO care. “Going forward, I will put all events on my calendar so that I won’t forget.”