Wednesday, October 12, 2011

This Relationship Corner: Apologies

This post is going to be directed mainly at the guys this time, though it can just as well be applied to women.

I gave my brother this advice right before he got married, and I give it to you: when in doubt, apologize. Even if you’re right, even if she started it, apologize. 

Remember in my last post when I mentioned that one of the keys to conflict is that it isn’t about winning? That’s why apologizing is helpful. It helps you bury your need to win every encounter. The point is for the relationship to win, and sometimes you have to take one for the team. (Hey, look at that, this geek can use a sports metaphor.)

Now, don’t over apologize either. This isn’t license to do whatever you want as long as you apologize. (Sorry, no loophole for you. Not yours.) The key is that when you see relationship stress, when perhaps she’s mad and you kind of know that you’re involved, go ahead and apologize. That way, she’ll know that you want to deal with the issue in a healthy way instead of just winning.

Plus, it’s a Golden Rule application. Treat her as you’d want to be treated. If you apologize, then she might return with an apology of her own, and then you can put aside your egos and deal with the issue. If you feel that perhaps you weren't completely in the wrong, it helps to first admit what you were wrong about. Start there and just see where this takes you.

Remember that ultimately your goal is to move the relationship forward, grow stronger, and be better people with each other. It isn't easy to negotiate the twists and turns of couple-hood. You're going to hit dead ends, you're going to go the wrong way. Sometimes fire is involved. And when you are rocketing in the wrong direction and you need a course correction, that apology will help get you there.

So how exactly do you apologize? Here's a basic breakdown:
  • understand why the other person is upset
  • be genuine in your apology
  • let it go
Let's examine each of these steps. The first step to apologies is to understand why they are upset. Throwing out any old apology isn't going to cut it in the long run. You have to target your apologies. To better understand her anger, it might require you to do two hard things: ask questions and listen. And listening can be the most difficult task of all. And when you listen, don't do it defensively, looking for weaknesses in her argument.  This is not the time for strategy or counter-attacks.  Check your ego and be willing to accept responsibility for why she is angry.

Then, step two, you need to actually say you're sorry. First, this needs to be heartfelt, not rehearsed or qualified. You also need to apologize specifically for those actions that angered her. That shows remorse and demonstrates that you are ready to move beyond the issue.

You also want to avoid the pseudo-apology. That's when you say: "I'm sorry you're upset." That's a jerk move, because rather than own up, you are putting it on her, acting like she's in the wrong for being upset at what you did. That's a child's reaction, and you need to be a man and apologize like one. If she's upset and you caused it, that apology is your responsibility, and the fight will not resolve until you get it right.

Finally, step three, you need to let it go. We can get bitter about having to apologize. Our egos won't let us accept responsibility, because it feels like defeat. (Thus our temptation to go all pseudo.) But bitterness and defeat will poison a relationship, because they only bring more conflict and desire to win, which we already know means that no one wins. Don't keep score, just be glad that the two of you have worked it out.

I hope this makes sense. Pride and ego are two major downfalls of relationships. If you truly want to be with someone, if you want to make it work long-term, then part of the deal is putting your pride aside and making your relationship a priority. Otherwise, you'll have no one left to apologize to.

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