God gave humans a simple, magical tool for maintaining healthy relationships. It feels like a secret weapon and makes life immensely easier.
Imagine having the power to stop a three-hour-long conflict before it begins. I’ll bet you would pay a high price for a relational tool like that.
The good news: It’s available for free.
It’s called apologizing.
Why should you apologize more?
There’s a stereotype that women apologize more than men. A 2010 study confirmed this stereotype, then pointed out that men tend to apologize at the same rate as women. This means men have a higher threshold for what justifies an apology. Many people don’t apologize because they have the wrong assumption about it.
Many years ago, near the beginning of our marriage, my wife and I had dinner with some friends. I turned my back to her while talking to the rest of the table, apparently for the majority of the meal. For those who know me, you are probably pretty shocked that I turned dinner into an attention-seeking—I mean, “teaching”—opportunity.
As we left dinner, my wife expressed how that made her feel unimportant. Turning my back to her made her feel ignored and excluded. Even more hurtful, she told me it had become a habit.
Suffice it to say, I felt offended.
I didn’t think I had done anything wrong. I felt like she was judging me unfairly. I thought she was being overly sensitive.
So, I went on the defensive.
What did she know about my motives? What did she know about my upstanding character? Why wasn’t she more grateful for all the things I did right?
After I expressed these thoughts, a conflict ensued. The evening was ruined, and it had started as such a good date, or so I had thought.
Nearly thirty years later, we know we handled it poorly—especially me.
You don’t need to admit wrongdoing to apologize
Then I learned this magic power.
The exact same thing happened a year later. Not kidding. I think it may have even been the same restaurant.
I don’t think she did anything differently. Again, she communicated her hurt, and I interpreted her words as criticism (although, now, I know that she probably meant to consult with me rather than criticize).
Rather than defending my actions or launching into my feelings, I did something simpler.
When I ask people why they didn’t apologize in a certain situation, the most common response is: “Because I didn’t do anything wrong.”
But that’s not necessarily an apology. Certainly, an apology can accompany an admission of wrongdoing (and I recommend: “I was wrong”).
An apology simply admits to hurting another person, even if unintentionally.
In fact, if you intentionally hurt someone, especially your spouse, you might consider more intense repentance and soul-searching. Apologize deeply, then seek help from a mentor, friends, family, a spiritual leader, pastor, professional therapist, or all of the above.
But you don’t have to intentionally hurt someone to apologize.
Don’t be defensive
Usually, we all hurt others accidentally—that doesn’t preclude us from saying we’re sorry. Consider if you were riding your bike, a kid jumped in front of you, and you accidentally hit him. Hopefully, you would apologize!
Did you do anything wrong?
No, but your actions hurt them.
In fact, you might intend something for good. Nurses, physical therapists, and dentists probably apologize a lot for causing pain to help you. Are they wrong? No, they may be saving your life.
Did I intend to shoulder my wife out of the conversation? No.
Did I intend to dismiss her or neglect her? No.
Is it wrong for me to answer questions or even teach a little in a setting like that? Not really. However, what I did, no matter how innocently, though not morally wrong, caused hurt feelings in my wife. Emotionally, it hurt her.
How did I know that I did?
Well, she told me.
So, ask yourself, is it valuable to defend motives in a situation like this? Did she even say that I intended to hurt her? Probably not.
She is assuming that I wasn’t strategically planning to hurt her feelings; otherwise, why would she bring it up to me? I know myself; I know that I can hog attention. If I really think about it, she described behavior that fits me perfectly.
The way to a freer life
Why do we become offended by a loved one pointing out our flaws when we know them so well?
Life is so much freer when we accept that we are frail and know ourselves well enough to hear when someone is accurately describing us.
So, instead of hours of fighting, she held my hand for a moment in silence, said she appreciated my listening ear, and the evening was saved.
A totally different outcome in spite of identical circumstances.
Can I encourage you to draw this powerful tool from the sheath and be prepared to try it?
I know that you may be clumsy at it, and the other person may also be clumsy at accepting it.
Be patient and try it.