Admitting Fault: Strength or Weakness

Posted on June 5, 2019


I generally am not crazy about publicly sharing stories where I did something foolish, but here goes anyway.  A few months ago, I backed into another car while pulling out of a parking space at my office.  It is an awful feeling when you feel that bump against a vehicle you didn’t know was there.  After I exchanged info with the other driver, I noticed that there were instructions on my insurance card about what to do in case of an accident.  Among the instructions was “don’t admit fault or discuss the accident with anyone” (besides one of our agents).  That ship had sailed by the time I saw that instruction.  I paid for the scratch out of pocket rather than make a claim.  Sometimes you mess up and you just need to own it.

In therapy, one partner will often assert that they have never heard their partner apologize (i.e. admit fault).  This may or not be true, but I believe they are sincere when they say it to me.  Assuming it is true, there may be a number of reasons for this.  First, one might have learned in one’s family of origin to never apologize, that apologizing puts you in a weaker position.  Consequently, to apologize to one’s partner would put one a weaker, vulnerable position.  Second, one might have a very fragile sense of self.  If I did something wrong, that means that I am bad.  Being bad would be excruciating.  If it would be too distressing to me to have done something wrong, then I must protect my sense of self by never even admitting to myself that I have done something for which I should apologize.  Third, one might honestly believe that what I did (or did not do) was justified.  I do what I do because of how you treat me.  Or I do what I have to do and you just take it wrong.  Fourth, it could be that the other partner has the same experience of having a partner who never apologizes.  And when I put on the scale what you have done to me as compared to what I have done, you really are the one who should be apologizing.

I would assert that sincerely owning your mistakes is not a weakness, but a strength.  If your reason for not apologizing was the first, your family of origin relationships are probably not what you want to seek to replicate in your own marriage.  I would further assert that by taking this approach you are robbing yourself of the intimacy and happiness you might otherwise enjoy in marriage.  If your reason was the second, you may want to get some help working on your view of self and where you learned that ever being wrong was not okay.  Human beings are imperfect.  You can be imperfect and still be okay.  If the third reason is your driver, I would offer a couple of thoughts.  1) We don’t repay evil for evil.  2) You may not be apologizing for something you did wrong, but rather the impact it had on your partner.  Part of love is caring about your partner’s experience.  3) Your partner is neither crazy nor stupid.  He/she does what he/she does for a reason.  If your reason is the fourth one, it would be better to not withhold from your partner what you are longing for yourself.  Someone needs to be the healer in this relationship.  How about you?

Now that I have sold you that being able to apologize is a relationship strength, let me offer some cautions.  On the other extreme, an apology can be a route to disconnection.  This happens when we develop a strategy of automatically apologizing to try to defer wrath.  Sometimes this is a biproduct of a family of origin with a volatile parent.  We learned that a quick apology can diffuse anger.  The problem with this type of apology is that it communicates, “Please don’t be angry with me” rather than “I love and care about you, and I’m sorry I hurt you.”

What gives an apology its healing power is empathy.  For empathy to be effective, it requires three components.  1) I get what it is like to be you.  2) I care what it is like to be you.  3) You have a real sense that #1 and #2 are true.

Many of you who read my blog, I do not know personally.  However, I can say with a high degree of confidence that you are not perfect.  As an imperfect spouse, there are times when you need to own your part and be the healer.  When something happens, there is power in being able to admit fault and discuss the accident with your partner.