“Say you’re sorry.”
I heard this phrase over and over again all throughout my childhood, especially after my younger brother and I would pummel each other like so many young siblings do. My mother would make us apologize after we each calmed down, after she had made it known to us that she was altogether disinterested in our arguments about who grabbed what toy from whom, who pinched the other, or who threw the first punch. Both of us would stand in front of her, sulking, and grumble our apologies as begrudgingly as we could because, truth be told, we were being forced to do so. When we were done, life would return to normal until the next time another such a scenario would transpire.
This pattern continued throughout my adolescence and into my adulthood. Whether I was on the giving end or the receiving end of an apology, arguments with family, friends and, eventually, my husband were all handled using this same approach – the utterance of a superficial “I’m sorry” followed by an ambivalent expectation of immediate forgiveness. Always implicit in these exchanges was the understanding that, at some later time, the cycle would begin again, and that the repair would never be permanent.
Not surprisingly, such apologies were rarely worth their weight in salt. Why? Because they were not being given out wholeheartedly. As most of us can attest, the end result of such flagrance is, in fact, no end result, only maintenance of the status quo, and zero improvement of the relationship already damaged by the words or actions of another. What inevitably results is a complete breakdown of the relationship some time down the road.
And that’s exactly what happened when I learned my own husband had been unfaithful to me. Though I was deeply pained by his actions – by the infidelity itself – what I fundamentally found most damaging was his unwillingness to apologize for hurting me. During those early months of our separation, I felt like I needed his words to heal. Time would tell that I wouldn’t, but in the interim receiving them certainly would have made the recovery process an easier one. To this day, the best I ever got from my now ex husband was the following: “I’m sorry you feel hurt.” Judging by his unwillingness to apologize, it is obvious my ex husband was not at all interested in fixing our fractured relationship.
But what about those instances when two people are focused on salvaging their relationship that, for whatever reason, has been compromised? Would offering a mere “I’m sorry” be enough? Better yet, do most people know how to actually offer a heartfelt apology that would render the forgiveness they seek?
Eric Kispert, a relationship and marital therapist in private practice, argues that a simple “I’m sorry” is insufficient to repair a damaged relationship. Instead, he offers the following system he coins, “The Five Steps to a Complete Repair.” The moment I learned about this model I was sold, not only because it forces the offender to acknowledge wrongdoing, but because it also helps inspire a behavioral change in the offender.
The five-step process additionally provides an opportunity for the aggrieved party to turn inward and focus on their own capacity for forgiveness, as well as what it means to offer that to another. According to Kispert, “in a time when people are long on blame and short on responsibility, as well as long on resentment and short on forgiveness,” this model provides the requisite tools for ultimately achieving a healthier, more communicative relationship. The steps are as follows.
“I am sorry for…”
As they say, the first step is often the most difficult. Offering a sincere apology is no exception. This is the part when the offender must assume responsibility and acknowledge wrongdoing. It’s not enough to simply apologize. The offender must direct focus on rebuilding the emotion their behavior has compromised for another.
“I am committed to changing my behavior from this point forward.”
So the offender is sorry. Now, what are they going to do about it? How will they affect change so that the offending behavior no longer occurs? This step requires the offender get some skin in the game. The gesture is meaningful because it shows the apology’s recipient the offender values their relationship and is interested in not only preserving it, but also in strengthening it from this point forward.
“Will you forgive me?”
Seeking forgiveness from another means the offender wants the person they wronged to know their feelings still matter. The recipient’s opinion is important, and the offender doesn’t want the recipient to continue perceiving them, and the past behavior, in a negative light. Implicit in this question is the offender wanting the person they hurt to consider the possibility of a future relationship with them. The ball is now in their court, and all the offender can do is wait.
Here the aggrieved acknowledges the offender’s apology, letting them know it has been received. But that doesn’t mean all is right with the world.
“I forgive you.”
The more difficult of the two steps for the aggrieved is extending forgiveness. Very often forgiving someone may need to be tabled for the time being. And that’s okay. Forgiveness should only be granted when the aggrieved feels absolutely ready to offer it. The offender must, therefore, be prepared to wait. If the offender is truly repentant, and receiving forgiveness is important to them, they will gladly do so.
Kispert proposes that engaging in this five-pronged apology, especially when a couple is married, is tantamount to renewing the commitment made on a couple’s wedding day. In his experience, after counseling more than 500 couples, married couples begin experiencing problems approximately three years following their wedding day. At that point, people stop committing to their marital vows, forgetting about their partners, causing the marriage to lose its luster.
The questions thus becomes, how committed is each person to repairing their relationship’s breakdown?
My now ex husband and I briefly tried to reconcile about three months after he first left. We attended one two-hour marriage counseling session together. During that time, it became readily apparent my husband was not interested in seeing our relationship survive. He was unapologetic and unwilling to take any responsibility for the events leading up to his infidelity. Nor was he interested in listening to my version of how I had contributed to the breakdown of our relationship.
Within days, I advised my husband to retain a lawyer. He obliged, and today we are no longer married.
Hurting the one we love and who loves us is an inevitable part of any romantic relationship. What ultimately sets apart a healthy relationship from a relationship that is deeply troubled is our consideration of how we make another person feel when we regret our actions. If saying we are sorry doesn’t mean much to us, then we have no right to expect that such a hollow apology will pass muster with another. Doing so is perhaps the most critical misstep for which we should ever truly be sorry.