An Explanation is Not an Apology

Posted on September 5, 2013

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‘Sorry’ seems to be the hardest word.  Elton John/Bernie Taupin

It’s hard for me to say ‘I’m sorry.’  Peter Cetera/David Foster

Is that how you apologize? ‘cause you suck at it.  Erin Brokovich[1]

Apologizing can be difficult.  There can be a number of reasons for this.  For some, apologies were never modeled in their family of origin.  Others may have learned from the family of origin that to apologize is a form of weakness or acquiescence.  We may not want to apologize because we feel we were not in the wrong.  Perhaps we feel misjudged if someone was hurt or offended by something we did or said.  We might know that our action was wrong, but felt it was justified by the other person’s behavior.  There may be such an accumulation of emotional wounds in the relationship that we just don’t want to apologize even if we were wrong.  Apologizing might also be associated with feelings of shame.  Whatever it might be that makes apologizing difficult, it is a useful and necessary skill in marriage.

My current thinking is that this is the first of a two part series on apologies.  So do you want to have a satisfying marriage or do you want to be right all of the time?  Let’s operate on the assumption that most of us would choose the former.  If you would really choose the latter, that is another issue entirely.  The first thing we want to differentiate here is the difference between an apology and an explanation.  In its simplest form an apology sounds like this.  “I am sorry for what I did/said.”  An explanation goes something like this.  “The reason I did/said that thing that you are upset about is…”  My assertion is that at the moment that your partner says I am mad at you about x, you have a choice to make.  You can either explain or apologize.  You cannot do both.  If you attempt to do both, your partner will hear it as an explanation and not an apology.

What difference does this make?  I am glad you asked that.  An explanation is essentially a defensive posture.[2]  It is a defense of your behavior rather than an acknowledgement of your partner’s hurt.  Rather than validating your partner’s emotional experience, it denies it.  Rather than making the moment about your partner, it makes it about you.

What if my intention really was misjudged?  Feelings are not facts.  They are just feelings, but they are real.  An explanation is a cognitive process.  It is about sorting through the facts of the situation.  Feelings are an emotional process.  In close relationships, you can’t get to the cognitive process until you have dealt with the emotions.  When a partner is feeling emotionally wounded, what they need to know is that their partner sees their pain and that their partner cares about their pain more than defending himself or herself.  Hopefully, you can truly be sorry for your partner’s hurt even if it was unintentionally caused.  Looking at this from another angle, a common plot device in movies and TV shows (particularly romantic comedy) hinges upon a misunderstanding.  Often neither party has done anything wrong, but one of the partners was still feeling angry and hurt.  When you watch that story, are you able to relate to that person’s pain even if it was just a misunderstanding?  The same idea applies here.  You may have been misjudged, but the point is to recognize your partner’s hurt rather than defend your actions.

Thus far, I have been talking about seeing your partner’s pain.  However, it is likely that what you see in those moments is your partner’s anger.  This can make the apology that much more difficult, particularly if you feel misjudged (or if you feel that you suffered the greater wrong).  With distressed couples, anger is almost always a secondary emotion.  There is usually something more primary behind it (e.g. sadness, loneliness, fear, hurt).  You may see your partner’s anger when you arrive home late, but what your partner may not show you is the fear that “I am not that important to you.”  You can save a lot of money on marital therapy by learning to not respond to anger with anger.[3]

Finally, “I am sorry you feel that way” is not an apology.  Don’t be fooled by the words “I am sorry.”  They are there as a smokescreen for telling someone that their feelings are not valid and they got the whole thing all wrong.  “I am sorry that I hurt you” is much more effective.

Why does apologizing fall to me and not my partner?  Somebody has to start the healing process.  Why not you?  Being emotionally connected is way better than being right.


[1] Quoting from the movie script.  Whether Erin actually said it, I could not say.

[2] As we learned in the post on the 4 horsemen, defensiveness is very damaging to relationships.

[3] More on this in the next post.

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