The Anatomy of A Real Apology

sorry hands

It didn’t take long to figure out what was wrong! The couple had come to us with some very familiar challenges. They were stuck, their marriage was heading in the wrong direction and they had a on of unresolved hurts and problems. Her complaint was his lack of responsibility and the fact that he just continued to make the same mistakes in their relationship over and over. One minute she felt like all was fine and the next he was pulling another of his bonehead stunts and acting like it was no big deal. From his point of view all she ever did was complain and yes, he did make a lot of mistakes but, as he put it, “I am always quick to say I’m sorry” so why can’t she just let it go?

I asked him to tell me more about how he said “I’m sorry”. He said, I just say I am sorry! I pressed him a little bit by asking him what is it you are sorry for? He replied, “I am sorry she is mad, I am sorry  we are having an argument, I am sorry I am always doing stuff that makes you angry (and then it escalated), I am sorry I am such a terrible husband, I am sorry I can never do anything right”! As a counselor Christie sees this all of the time as do I in my capacity as a coach.   The problem was easy to spot, bringing about change can be difficult. Without going into all of the root causes of his challenge we simply begin to help him (and this could just as easily have been a her – this is not a male specific issue) understand what a real apology looks like and why each step is so important.

difference in im sorry and an apology

So, here is The Anatomy of A Real Apology …

Step #1 – is to accept full responsibility for the mistake that has been made. Rather than just saying I’m sorry, we need to say specifically what it is we are sorry for and we need to own it without making any excuses! This tells the other person that we recognize exactly what it is we have done and that we are taking full responsibility for it.  Let me be clear, if there were circumstances that contributed to the mistake that has been made or legitimate reasons there is nothing wrong with communicating that as a part of the discussion. Here’s the deal … if you are late for the 100th time and for the 100th time you blame it on the traffic then that is not a reason, that is an excuse and a lame one! Owning the problem and communicating that we own it gives the other person hope that we can resolve it. Making excuses and constantly blaming outside influences, or just saying I am sorry, causes the other person to come to expect we will repeat the same mistake over and over again and creates a sense of hopelessness that we can come to any real resolution.

Step #2 – is to understand the damage done by the mistake or the problem created. When we own the problem and understand the damage done we can begin to understand why the other person is upset. If we forgot to stop by the store and pick up the stuff we promised we would then we should be able to understand that someone might be disappointed, frustrated or even downright angry if they were counting on us to make the dinner with the neighbors a success. Forget to do it for the 10th time and the stakes begin to get raised. Escalate the problem to constantly coming home late from work, forgetting to pay the mortgage or even getting involved with someone outside of your relationship and the need to take responsibility and owning the damage done is critical!

what im sorry looks likeStep #3 – expressing a sense of remorse, sadness or disappointment for having let someone we care for down lets them know we “get it” and that we feel appropriately bad for messing up! Along with feeling bad for what we have done to someone else should come a genuine sense of frustration and disappointment in ourselves as well. If we forget to pick up th bread for the first time there is no need to act as if the world is coming to the end and that we are a dirt bag. Getting caught in an affair and acting like it is no big deal is a sign of serious emotional dysfunction!

Step #4 – there needs to be a genuine commitment to make sure the problem never happens again. The key words here are “genuine commitment”! Expecting we will never ever make another mistake is unrealistic but nothing is more maddening to the constantly offended than the words “I will try” not to do that again. To develop trust and dependability in a relationship there is either do or don’t and there is no “try”! The word “try” is a common way for those who struggle with making the same mistakes over and over to create a hedge for making the same mistake again and almost guarantees they will! If we fully understand and own the mistake, we understand the damage to the relationship created and we are truly remorseful then we should be in a place where we don’t want to make that same mistake again.

Step #5 – we need to create a plan to make sure we don’t repeat our mistakes. Just not wanting to repeat mistakes is just a dream without some plan for doing so. If we are constantly late then we may need to take some priority management courses, learn to set alarms on our smart phone or read a boundaries book to help us manage our lives more effectively. If we are consistently being inconsiderate around the house, taking others for granted or not carrying our weight in the relationships in our lives then perhaps getting professional help to examine our core beliefs about how we treat others. Whatever the challenge is we need to do the work necessary to make the changes needed to grow by cleaning up the crud we all have as a part of just being human!

Simply put we have to communicate that we fully own the problem, understand the damage our mistakes create, feel appropriately remorseful, commit to doing everything we can to make sure it won’t happen again and create a plan that will ensure the mistake isn’t repeated! Now that my friend is a real apology and it goes a lot further in creating a healthy, vibrant, life long relationship than just saying “I’m Sorry!

Let us know what you think …

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