Image: Flickr/Lotus Carroll
Elton John sang it so eloquently. It’s a sad, sad situation, but parents and married couples know just how absurd it can become. Offering up a good, old-fashioned apology is one of the most difficult things in all the world.
As a parent, I’ll admit it: I’ve done the forced apology thing. “Tell your sister you’re sorry.” Countless parents have said this to countless kids over countless generations. It’s one of the universal “go to” phrases we believe is guaranteed to help us all get along. It means, let the other person know you regret what you did and are willing to take the first step towards making things right again.
Of course, anyone with children knows that your child’s parentally enforced apology is sometimes less than heartfelt. They stand there gazing at the floor, mumbling out the words. And you know they wouldn’t be there at all if you weren’t making them.
Still, we believe it’s a good thing for them to say so it must be a good thing for us to teach — even if we do have to oversee it — even if it lacks conviction. Perhaps, we hope, the sentiment behind the words will eventually click into place.
This was conventional wisdom for centuries. One generation passed it down to the next and so on and so on until we discovered that you could sell a lot of books under the premise that everything you learned about parenting from your parents was completely wrong, unhealthy, and psychologically damaging. Now we are convinced that without any connection between internal remorse and external behavior, well, words are just words.
And I get it. I do.
Ultimately, I don’t just want my kids to apologize, I want them to want to apologize. I want them to understand the impact their behavior has on others — to know how their actions have offended someone and to feel some sense of guilt over that.
But I wonder sometimes: if we wait until all those dots get connected before we expect our kids to say the words…we might be waiting a very long time.
I’ve seen this phenomenon at work in marriages, too. Couples experience conflict, and I’ll ask, “When’s the last time either of you apologized to the other?”
Blank stares. Slow, deep breaths. Math being done in their heads. Carry the one. Someone gets out a calendar. When was the last leap year? You don’t have to be an expert to figure out that apologies are as welcome as a root canal.
It wasn’t always this way. Most married couples had conversations that involved apologies and forgiveness. Once upon a time. Over time, though, someone stopped. The practice ended and the impulse followed.
What if you did for yourself what you do for your kids? Consider for a moment what might happen if you told yourself, “Say you’re sorry. Stand up straight. Don’t look at the floor. Speak up. Say it.”
I think this might help you have a more ScreamFree Marriage this holiday season.
Of course, our little ones don’t often want to do this, and I understand why. They’re at the beginning of their journey into the wide world of relationships. They don’t fully grasp the value of words. They’re impulsive creatures who lack self-discipline.
But what’s your excuse? Even when we know the apology is merited, mustering up the gumption to utter that terrible phrase is difficult, and the longer we put it off the harder it is to do.
I can almost hear your rationalizations and justifications.
“I didn’t do anything wrong.”
What are you Mother Teresa? Can we all just admit that we all do at least a little wrong every single day of our lives? Nothing is ever all one person’s fault. If there’s conflict in your marriage — and there is — you own some of it. Own it.
Even if you think your spouse should own most of it — you own some of it. Even if it’s, say, a 60-30 split (with 10% being your kids’ fault) — you could both say, “It’s not all my fault.” But you each have something to apologize for.
So own your part — even if it’s a small part of the big mess — even if you weren’t the one who started it — even if you were just defending yourself — even if your spouse knew she was pushing your buttons — even if you think it’s just one-half of one percent. Own it.
I know you probably have a very good reason why you did what you did or said what you said. I know that. But you also know that there’s something somewhere for which you should apologize. Do it. It’s good for you. If you wait until you are completely convinced that the problem is more than 50% your fault, well, when’s the next leap year?
Here’s a harsh reality: most people think they’re more innocent than they really are. We believe we’re easier to get along with than we really are. We are convinced that we’re the normal one, and, if only everyone else would get in synch with us, then the world would be a much better place.
But what if you’re wrong? What if you’re not as pleasant as you think you are? What if the percentage of the problem that rests on your shoulders is even a tiny bit higher than you assume it is?
Odds are your spouse thinks this is the case. Odds are an independent panel of objectives observers would agree with your spouse. You probably own more of the problem than you realize. Go ahead and apologize.
“If I apologize, he’ll think he’s right and I’m wrong.”
Yes. He might. But is that your goal here? To correctly identify who is more to blame than the other?
No. It’s not. At least it shouldn’t be. Your goal here is to simply acknowledge the fact that you own some of this. “I’m sorry I made fun of your hair. That was wrong.” “I should not have yelled at you like that. I apologize. Please forgive me.”
Note those specifics. You focus on what you did — not on what they did to make you do what you did. If your spouse hears you apologize for what you did and comes to the conclusion, “Finally! She’s admitting that everything that’s wrong in our marriage — heck, in the whole universe — is all completely her fault!” then, congratulations, you married an idiot.
Of course, he may do a little bit of that at first, especially if you have a long history of escalating conflicts into contests of who’s right and who’s wrong. If you’ve made everything into a zero-sum game — where in order for one person to win the other person must lose — it may take a while to adjust to the idea that my apology only covers what I said or did.
Saying, “I’m sorry,” is not the same as saying, “You were 100% right.”
Over time even an idiot should be able to figure this out. And, even if that never happens, at least your apology may short-circuit the escalation of things. There’s a Jewish proverb that says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath.” Most people find it difficult to remain emotionally twisted up when someone expresses authentic remorse.
An honest and humble apology alters the dynamics of the situation.
A Final Word
A fundamental principle of human nature is this: if you want someone to act a certain way towards you, begin acting that way towards them. If you’d like someone to be friendly towards you, be friendly towards them. If you want them to compliment you, compliment them.
If you want to hear an apology, apologize.
It may not work. But what you’ve been doing…how’s that been working for you?
As you continue to apologize appropriately and authentically, you may show your spouse that apologies are not signs of weakness. The ratio may continue to feel out of balance, but I bet you’ll feel closer to your spouse than you do now.
There’s something mysterious about apologizing. There’s something in the very words, and the act of humility — imperfect as the intention may be — required to get them out of your mouth, that can improve your relationship. An apology — even a less-than-completely-heartfelt one — has the power not only to end an argument, but to heal and change the person who utters it, however grudgingly.
You don’t have to feel like doing something in order to do it. Sometimes you have to do the thing for the feelings to come.
Sorry very well may be the hardest word. It’s not easy to swallow your pride, to maintain your integrity, to be honest with the people who are closest to you (they’re the ones who can hurt you the most). But there’s bad hard and there’s good hard. There’s the hard stuff that turns you into the person you want to be. Hard stuff that makes you stronger and creates the kind of relationship you deeply desire.
Sorry definitely falls into that category.