Read on to understand the power of apology and how it can do wonders when you hurt someone you love.
I recently worked with Bill (32) and Ann (34). They had been married for five years, with no children, just yet.
They were thinking about starting a family but were reluctant to do so because their marriage was riddled with strife. When therapy began, they seemed to be making some significant progress.
Then what we would come to refer to as “stuff” began to emerge, causing them to quickly slip-slide into old destructive issues and patterns that had compelled them to call me.
After several sessions of listening to them complain about one another, I decided to intervene with the following homework assignment to save their relationship.
Ten minutes before our fifth session was scheduled to end, I stated. “Okay. So, it’s clear that you can’t seem to get beyond certain hurt feelings and misunderstandings.
So, here’s what I’d like to propose. From now until the next time we meet, I’d like you to complete the following homework assignment.”
They both seemed interested. As such, I continued.
The homework on how to say I’m sorry
“I want each of you, on your own, to develop a top-ten-list of things you think you’ve done to hurt your partner. Then I’d like you to schedule some time to share your lists. But here’s the most important part of the exercise.
You’ll take turns sharing one item, then after sharing each item, with as much sincerity as you can possibly muster, you’ll end with the following three words: ‘I am sorry.’ Questions?”
Both seemed uneasy. So, I waited. After a brief period of silence, Bill stated. “How do you know saying I’m sorry, will help?”
“I don’t. Still, there’s one thing I do know. You both seem to be slip-sliding deeper and deeper into a dark place.”
Bill couldn’t argue with my last statement, but I clearly didn’t seem to have his buy-in. Ann seemed a little less resistant.
After some more silence. Ann spoke. “I don’t believe we can do this on our own, so the only way I’ll agree to participate in this exercise is if we can create our lists at home, and bring them here to read in front of you.”
I sensed that Bill seemed more agreeable as soon as he heard Ann’s recommendation on this exercise of saying I’m sorry.
So, I stated, “Okay. Fair enough.” And then looked to him for buy-in. “So, what you think Bill, are you in agreement with this change?” More silence.
He was clearly turning the assignment over in his head. Finally, he said. “Okay. I’m in. Let’s try it.”
The power of saying I’m sorry
A week later, the couple arrived for their next session.
To be honest, I was fully prepared to hear one or both partners state that they hadn’t completed the homework. After all, it isn’t easy saying I’m sorry!
But to my surprise, when I finally asked about their homework, both pulled out a sheet of paper indicating they were ready to proceed. ‘Humm…This might be interesting,’I reasoned.
Then I said, “Before proceeding, I’d like to lay down some ground rules to allow for maximum success. So, here’s how I’d like us to proceed.”
You have to move your chairs so that you’re facing one another so that you can make good eye contact.
Then, each partner will read an item from their list in a respectful, sincere tone of voice, ending with the statement, “I am sorry.”
After ending with the statement, “I am sorry,” there will be a brief 10-second pause to permit both of you to process each other’s statements.
And finally, there won’t be any room for conversation until you’ve finished reading your entire lists.
Both agreed, appearing a bit tentative, and probably a little anxious. I wasn’t deterred, providing support. I then stated, Okay. I’m going to flip a coin. The winner goes first.”
I flipped the coin, and Bill won. He grimaced as though I had poked him in the side. Then appearing even more tentative and nervous, he read his first statement, ending with the words, “I am sorry.”
There was a ten-second pause, then Ann read an item from her list, ending with the same words, “I am sorry.”
After the first few apologies were offered, neither partner showed much emotion. But as the exercise continued, Ann appeared to soften, and was beginning to look tearful, and stated. “I can’t go on. This is too hard.”
“Come on,” I said. “I know it’s hard. But give it a chance. Something is telling me this might help.” She begrudgingly agreed, closed her eyes to find some focus, and they continued.
With each apology that was offered, I sensed the tension lifting between them and connection forming until they reached the end of the exercise.
This time, the silence was qualitatively different. It was evident that the power behind their apologies had touched them both. More silence.
This is a better type of silence. Sensing I shouldn’t speak, I waited. Bill spoke first.
“I never knew you regretted those things.”
“And I didn’t know you were sorry about the things you mentioned.”
“I’m sorry,” he said again.
“I am too,” she stated.
I used the remainder of the session to help them cultivate further emotional connection. This exercise by no means resolved the issues and problems they had presented with, but it was a turning point for them and their therapy.
Three simple words, ‘I’m sorry’, made it possible for them to let down their protective armor and be less defensive and critical or one another. It was a lesson that helped carry them through the remainder of their therapy.
Also, watch this video to identify the common relationship mistakes and avoid them. Perhaps these tips can save you the effort of saying I’m sorry!
After working with hundreds of couples over the years, and even in my own personal relationship, I’ve discovered that these three simple words, if offered sincerely and respectfully, can help to neutralize the most strident and toxic effects of anger, resentment, guilt, shame, frustration, anxiety and fear that drive a couple’s disagreements and arguments.
So, in your efforts to get past couple gridlock, don’t forget these three powerful words, “I am sorry.”
They can be the catalyst that makes a difference in your efforts to emotionally reconnect and move toward one another, rather than further away.
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.
Charles Joanides, Ph.D., LMFT has a private practice specializing in reclaiming marriages. He has co-authored a premarital program entitled, The Journey of Marriage in the Orthodox Church, which is currently being used by numerous Orthodox Christian churches. He has also the author of several books, peer reviewed articles and numerous articles for popular consumption.