I have been married for roughly seven months now and I think I have both made and received more apologies in that seven months than in all the preceding thirty-seven years of my life. It’s been a bit of a hard row to hoe because I am, by temperament, not inclined to apologize and/or admit the possibility of my being wrong. On the flip side, I am also not inclined to be apologized to unless that apology comes with some grovelling as well. It’s not one of the more sparkling ‘for public display’ corners of my personality.
But there is nothing like marriage for pointing out to you exactly how much of a dick you are, while at the same time, providing you with all the motivation you need to fix that. And there is nothing like having to apologize -and mean it- to scrub the hubris out of your soul, which leads us to our starting point.
Don’t Apologize if You Don’t Mean It – If you’re not actually sorry, don’t tell someone you are. A) it’s a lie and now you have to deal with flaming trousers on top of everything else and B) you’ve just compounded whatever offense you’ve committed with insincerity. You live with this person. They know you better than anyone. Do you really think they’re not going to know you’re not being honest? Get it together.
Be Specific – Know what you’re apologizing for and state that specifically. Don’t be vague and don’t beat around the bush. ‘I’m sorry for anything I said that hurt your feelings’ is bad. ‘I’m sorry I hurt your feelings’ is better, but ‘When I said ‘How’d you do your hair, jumper cables?’ I hurt your feelings and I apologize for that’ is the best.
Own Your Bad Behavior – This is often the hardest part. Admitting that it is, in fact, you who dealt it in this instance is not for amateurs. Stay the course, though, because nobody likes the non-apology apology. Don’t say things like ‘I’m sorry if you were offended’ or ‘If I hurt anyone, I will apologize.’ That throws the behavior back on them, makes them responsible for your mistakes and just generally cheapens the whole process. It’s tempting, because it allows you to not actually admit to anything and remain the Good Guy at least in your own mind. Don’t succumb to that lure, though. Because passive-aggressive leads to weasel words and weasel words lead to politics and once you start down that road, forever will it dominate your destiny.
Put A Period On That Bad Boy – Are you familiar with that axiom that says that if someone says something that is followed by a ‘but’ that whatever follows the ‘but’ will invariably invalidate the first half of the sentence? It’s the same with apologies. Don’t say ‘I’m sorry for/I did/I said X, but you…’ NO. BAD. WRONG. Those need to be two very separate and distinct sentences. For best results, they shouldn’t even appear in the same paragraph, because they are often two separate discussions. Also, don’t rush through your apology so you can point out whatever horrible things the other person did. Remember, there is a time and place. Smooth down the road before you try and travel on it to a different destination.
Be Gracious – This ties in somewhat with what I wrote earlier about receiving generosity. How you receive an apology is almost as important as how you make one. It’s a lot like winning championships: The key is to act like you’ve been there before. Be gracious and be forgiving, because soon enough you’re going to be on the opposite end of this process. Don’t be like the man in the parable, who is forgiven the huge debt and refuses to forgive a small one in turn. Don’t walk people through a step-by-step refutation of their grievous sins and make them grovel. You’re not the Spanish Inquisition.
You put all those things together and you’ll be able to steer your way through the inevitable marital discord. I say inevitable because as much as you may have been convinced of it when you asked her to marry you, or when you saw him as you walked down the aisle, neither of you are perfect and you’re going to get plenty of chances to put this into practice.