Most people are pretty good at apologizing, depending on the context. If you bump into someone in the office break room – sorry! If you accidentally spill something in a grocery store – I’m so sorry!

In your close relationships, though, apologizing can be one of the hardest things to do. I think this is because of triple punch of emotions we often feel in these moments.

  1. Defense – I didn’t mean anything bad!
  2. Confusion – why is my partner even hurt by this?
  3. Guilt – I cause my partner hurt

All of those emotions are normal to feel. Most of us are not walking around with the intent to hurt our partner’s feelings. We’re just going through life, and them wham! We find out something we did caused them distress. The problem is not with the emotions we feel, the problem is how fast they jolt through us and which one dominates.

If apology is hard for us, we tend to react to our partners in the following order. We might say, “Don’t be ridiculous! (defense) Why are you even making this such a big deal? (confusion)” And maybe inside but unexpressed is – I feel guilty about hurting you. 

*pro tip: if you express guilt defensively, for example, “Well I’m just the worst husband in the world, then!!” that emotion is actually defense. Your partner will hear it for what it is – a push away.

What I want couples to understand is that there is room for all of them. It’s ok to be confused why your partner is upset. It’s ok to also want to explain your good intention, and explain why you weren’t intending to be harmful. But if defense and confusion runs the show, and guilt never makes an appearance, our partners never feel like their hurt matters to us.

At home, try just noticing and tracking your own responses. Self-awareness is such a helpful tool in trying to change our reactions. See if it’s possible to breathe and slow down when you’re in this exchange with your partner. See if you can change the order of your responses to:

  1. Confusion – “I’m confused, can you slow down and explain what hurt your feelings?”
  2. Guilt – “I feel bad, I didn’t mean to hurt you, but I get that I did.”
  3. Explanation – “I really wasn’t thinking me being late would cause that much distress, or I would have called. I get that it would be irritating to have cooked dinner for me, and I look like I don’t appreciate that. I truly do appreciate it, and I meant no harm. I will be more aware of letting you know where I am next time.”

See how this goes, and remember, when we slow down, we have way more options of how to respond!

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