Hard to Say Sorry by Sam Margulies

9 03 2014

couple not talking to each other

Although this blog is essentially devoted to the subject of divorce, every now and then I will discuss some aspect of marriage that leads to divorce and suggest ways to reduce the damage. Having mediated domestic disputes for thirty years it occurs to me that men and women regard apologies from very different perspectives. And simple as it may seem, these different views of apology are the source of extensive damage to many marriages. In short, most men don’t know how to apologize. In intimate relationships an effective apology can quickly heal an inadvertent injury. Similarly, an ineffective apology or the complete failure of an apology can cause an inadvertent injury to be experienced as a major wound to the relationship.
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For women, apologizing is a way of reconnecting with someone whose feelings you have hurt, however inadvertently. When a woman gets feedback that something she has done or failed to do has left another feeling offended or injured, she is usually quick to apologize. A breach in the relationship is avoided and the relationship continues undisturbed. Neither the woman offering nor the woman receiving the apology regard it as unusual but rather see it as a routine aspect of relationships.
Apologies for men are very different. Men tend to view apologies as humiliating and a loss of face. Scholars of gender communication have observed that for men, verbal communication is tied up with their concern for the way their status is perceived by others. Men are more conscious of the impact of what they say on how others perceive their power position or lack of power. So for a man to acknowledge that he has done something wrong often means that he feels diminished in the eyes of those who hear the apology. Thus a woman apologizes to maintain healthy relationships and feels no sense of loss. But a man apologizes and feels a sense of loss if not humiliation. The result of this difference is that men are reluctant to apologize and in many cases, do not know how to craft a sincere apology.
It is this lack of knowledge I seek to address here. Most of the women in the couples I see for divorce mediation complain that their marriages suffer from a terminal lack of intimacy. They report that their husbands are unable or unwilling to respond to their wives’ feelings and the husband’s tendency to stonewall when presented with a complaint leaves his wife feeling disconnected and alienated. It appears that in most modern marriages it is the woman who is angry at her mate more often than the reverse. Women express anger at their husband’s sins of commission as well as sins of omission. And the most common sin of omission is his failure to apologize when he has offended. So here is a brief tutorial for men on how to apologize.
There are six elements of a proper apology. If you do not want to waste your time you must include all six:
1. Acknowledge the Wrongful Act
You need to begin by saying ” I was wrong and I am sorry.” There are no substitutes for this admission. If you say something dumb like “I am sorry that you think I was wrong,” you might as well spare yourself and not bother. There is no getting around it. You were wrong so plead guilty and get on with it.
2. Acknowledge that You Have Hurt her Feelings.
Understand that your wrongful act has hurt her feelings and made her feel disconnected from you. You cannot reconnect without attending to the feelings piece. So you say “I was wrong and I am sorry that I have hurt your feelings” Once again, you cannot wimp out by fudging and saying ” I am sorry that your feelings are hurt” You have to connect your wrongful act to her hurt feelings.
3. Express Your Remorse
An expression of remorse and regret is the way you demonstrate your ability to feel an appropriate response to her hurt feelings. So you say, “I was wrong and I am sorry that I hurt your feelings and I feel terrible that I have done something that has hurt you.” (It will help here if you actually look remorseful)
4. State Your Intention Not to Repeat
This may be difficult particularly if you are a repeat offender but it is an expression of your acknowledgement of your need to reform. “I know that I am sometimes insensitive to what you need but I am going to try my hardest not to do it again.” If you smirk at this juncture you’re going to have to go back and start all over.
5. Offer to Make Amends
If you don’t know what would help ask her. “What can I do to make it up to you?” The particular act of contrition may be negotiated but the important thing is to express your willingness to do something by way of compensation. Of course, once you commit to do something you need to do it lest you render the entire effort useless.
6. Seek Forgiveness
Forgiving is an act that liberates the forgiver from anger so seeking forgiveness is not as self-serving as you may think. A simple “will you forgive me?” will usually suffice but if you want to avoid appearing presumptuous, or if your offense was particularly odious, you might want to first ask “can you forgive me?”
As you get better at it you will feel more comfortable creating your own sequence of the elements and adding those embellishments that mark your apologies with your own stamp of individuality. Master this simple skill and you will find your domestic life ever more peaceful.
Psycology Today



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