Why, oh why, is this little phrase so hard to say? And even when we do say it, why does it feel like we're never doing it right?
In our marriage, "I'm sorry" has come to mean basically nothing. Usually we either say it to avoid a conversation or conflict but have no real idea why we are apologizing, or we say it as a passive aggressive term that actually means, "You're crazy but I'm going to apologize to show you how ridiculous this is."
Now, raise your hand if you think my marriage is doomed.
Well, I hate to disappoint you, but it's not. My marriage has flaws because my husband and I have flaws. We make mistakes. We break each other's trust at times. And thanks to these tools I'm learning, we can rebuild it.
So, back to the tool at hand: apologizing. When done right, apologizing can bring a couple closer together. When done wrong, it can become a breeding ground for festering resentment.
According to our Couple Links relationship class, when someone has broken the trust of a relationship either in a big way or in a small, day-to-day way, they need to follow the four steps of a genuine apology.
A good apology could sound something like this: "I know you are upset we missed the movie (acknowledge what happened). I'm so sorry I was late (apologize for my role). My boss stopped me on my way out (clarification), but I am sorry it made us miss the show (apology).
Phew! Crisis averted. Apology given. Apology accepted. Marriage saved.
Not so fast.
An apology is only the beginning of recovering when trust has been broken in a marriage. While giving a genuine apology and receiving forgiveness are the first steps, they are not the same thing as reaching reconciliation. Forgiveness is a choice to let go of anger, but it doesn't mean things are fine and can go back to the way they were.
The second part of a real apology comes in the reconciliation. This may come in the form of small acts of rebuilding the trust that was lost, or it could come in the form of listening to the victim talk through their pain or concerns.
If you skip this step, you may have said "I'm sorry," but the resentments can build anyway. Our class equates these resentments to a small pebble in your shoe. At first, it is small and annoying, but you think you can ignore it. Then, you get a sore on your foot as these annoyances become bigger and ever-present in your mind. Finally, these wounds cripple you and are all you can see when you look at your spouse. You begin to believe he or she is acting out of a deliberate desire to hurt you.
I don't have a quick and easy answer to how to avoid resentment in a marriage, but I do believe that open, supportive communication like I wrote about last week coupled with genuine apologies and reconciliation are a good place to start.
Last week, a reader wrote in to say that taking a relationship class because "who doesn't need a tuneup" is code for saying "our marriage is desperately falling apart."
I understand this sentiment, but it couldn't be further from the truth. I am not a master of communication or interpersonal relationships. Why would I assume that I could spend decades with one person and not need help learning how to best talk to, fight with, love and live with my spouse? In my view, that's a little arrogant to think I can be an expert on all those things without some help.
Habits of poor communication occur in every marriage, and we all need tuneups and classes and time set apart for the hard work of making a marriage work. There is no shame in this, and in fact, reaching out for help only shows that you care about your marriage, your spouse and the commitment you've made for better and worse.
How do you apologize and forgive in your marriage?