Is it difficult for your spouse to apologize and tell you that he (or she) is sorry? Or is it hard for you to offer an apology?
Some individuals can say “I’m sorry” easily while others can’t ever seem to choke the words out. When a spouse is reluctant to apologize, the partner inevitably ends up carrying emotional baggage from the resulting hurt feelings, resentment, and anger.
It’s often easier to offer an apology to a total stranger or a casual acquaintance than it is to a spouse. Usually, in those cases, whatever we have done—temporarily blocked the aisle with our shopping cart at the grocery store or bumped into someone in a hallway—was done unintentionally.
There’s normally not any feeling that one person did something to the other in a personal way. Instead, it feels like an accident, a momentarily distraction, or a misjudgment of visual space.
But when things happen between two spouses, an oversight or mistake can take on more personal tones and meaning. A spouse may harbor strong feelings that whatever occurred was deliberate and intentional.
When intense feelings are triggered and the emotional climate becomes either icy or raging, the offending spouse may retreat, not knowing what else to do. Or he (or she) may be afraid of doing the wrong thing and making the situation worse.
Some spouses view apologizing as a sign of weakness that brings about a loss of power and status. A spouse with this perspective may equate apologizing with admitting inadequacy and incompetence, and thus be reluctant to apologize for mistakes, failures, or misjudgments.
To others, it’s humiliating to have to apologize. They may have been ridiculed and criticized harshly by their parents when they made mistakes growing up, and as a result, they try to avoid admitting to mistakes and the unpleasant feeling that brings.
Accepting responsibility for personal actions and decisions is challenging for some spouses. They operate in denial, as though by not admitting fault they haven’t done anything “wrong.” It’s almost as though they are afraid of owning any inappropriate behaviors because then they might have to also take responsibility for other actions. So it’s just easier to avoid and deny than to admit responsibility and apologize.
If a spouse views apologizing as “all or nothing”—that the person who is “wrong” has to ask for forgiveness from the one who is “right”—that can also make the task more daunting. So can viewing the person who apologizes as the “loser” in an argument or dispute, while the one accepting the apology is the “winner.”
What Can You Do if It’s Hard for Your Spouse to Apologize?
The following five tips offer specific actions that you can take:
- Become comfortable with saying, “I’m so sorry for my part in what happened between us” or ‘I’m so sorry for my part in the misunderstanding.” That acknowledges two people are involved in what happens in relationship interactions and makes it less threatening for each to accept personal responsibility.
- If your partner refuses to make an apology for behavior that deeply hurt you, ask her (or him) if she at least regrets what happened. Some spouses will find it easier to say “I really regret what happened at the party” than “I’m really sorry for my behavior at the party.”
- Practice being the kind of partner that you wish you had. Apologize readily and model healthy behavior for your spouse. Be open about your feelings when it’s hard to apologize. Say, “I don’t know why it’s so hard to apologize sometimes—but it is. This isn’t easy for me to say because I’d rather blame you than look at myself, but I am truly sorry for the things I said last night.” You can’t control what your spouse decides to do or not to do, so focus on what you do have control over—your own reactions and behavior.
- Write your spouse a handwritten letter (pen and paper—no emails) sharing your feelings and say that in order to move on, you really need some sort of acknowledgement of your feelings and the hurt you have experienced. State that it’s important for you to know your partner cares about your feelings enough to apologize or admit regret for what happened.
- Remember that if your spouse can’t apologize to you, it doesn’t necessarily mean your spouse doesn’t love you. In some cases, it can indicate a callousness and indifference to the partner’s feelings. But in other cases, it can indicate a lack of relationship skills or unresolved individual issues.
Your best strategy may be to see if your partner will agree to some marriage counseling sessions to improve communication and intimacy. Then, address the issue in the counselor’s office where your chances of being heard and opening the door for positive change are greatly increased. (By Nancy Wasson, Ph.D.)