I’m sorry. 

Let’s face it — these two little words are packed with meaning, depending on the situation. 

I’m sorry I screwed up. 

I’m sorry you feel that way.

I am sorry, but it wasn’t my fault.

I’m sorry you’re a jerk. 

Apologies matter in marriage. But we know all apologies aren’t equal. It’s not always whether we use the words, but how we use them that makes a difference. 

Stuff happens in marriage.

Words get said. Feelings get hurt. Expectations aren’t met. Misunderstandings occur. Responsibilities fall by the wayside. Someone forgets an anniversary. 

All the same, these things cause your marital connection to run off the rails. Even with minor instances, you want to get back on track with your spouse. But how do you do that? Well, research tells us apology is one of the most essential tools for reconciliation in the eyes of both the offender and the offended.

Last night, my wife and I were going to sleep, and she decided to have a little fun. She put her hand up close to my face, thinking I was unaware of it in the dark. Unfortunately, she miscalculated my ninja-like sensibilities. I felt it, reacted on reflex, and accidentally poked her in the eye. 

Was it my fault? No, not really. Was it on purpose? Absolutely not. It was a reaction. Did I apologize? Profusely! I would never intentionally harm my wife, and, taken the wrong way, she might think I wasn’t concerned for her well-being. My sincere apology smoothed out the situation. (Her eyesight is fully restored, by the way.

Of course, there’s more to an apology than the words. Most of us were taught the formula: Say the words = everything is okay now. 

Did you bite your teacher’s ankle again, Mikey? You need to go and apologize…

And for many of us, that formula got passed down to our marriage. Apology as words-only, at the least, is ineffective. And at the most, it does more damage. 

Consider these times when you shouldn’t simply say I’m sorry to your spouse: 

  • To simply end the argument because it’s uncomfortable
  • When you don’t know what you’re apologizing for, but you know you’re being blamed for something again
  • To get something from your spouse, like an admittance of wrongdoing or a “return-apology” 
  • To manipulate someone into forgiving behavior you fully intend to keep doing

So then, why apologize? Say it with me:

I apologize when I recognize my contributions to our disconnect

Apologizing isn’t always a matter of something that was “right” or “wrong.” Many times it’s simply a matter of contributing to an issue. There’s a difference. 

Think of it like this: 

I apologize…

  • When I do something flat-out wrong. (Duh. That’s obvious.) 
  • Even when it was unintentional. 
  • When I didn’t do something morally wrong, but still, I didn’t consider your feelings.
  • For miscommunication on my part. 

Studies tell us that a genuine apology expresses ownership and remorse for something, seeks to empathize with how it affected the other person, and tries to compensate in some way for the offense. 2,3 In short, apology is about restoring the relationship rather than erasing the wrong. 

So should you apologize to your spouse for something you didn’t do?

The bigger question is, What were your contributions to the disconnect? And how did that affect your spouse? And what can you do to restore the marital connection? 

Talk about it together. Empathize. Consider your contribution. Take ownership of that. See it from your spouse’s point of view. And then ask, Do I need to apologize?

The result? You move further ahead in your relationship than where you were before the disconnect. There is a deeper right than being right.

I’m not going to share what happened with my spouse after the eye-poke incident. (That’s personal – but let’s just say we weren’t sleepy after that.) But I will tell you that what followed would not have happened without a wholehearted apology. Connection restored.  

When conflicts are managed well and effective apologies are made, your marriage can come out even better on the other side.4 And that’s nothing to feel sorry about! 

Sources:

1Fehr, R., Gelfand, M. J., & Nag, M. (2010). The Road to Forgiveness: A Meta-Analytic 

Synthesis of Its Situational and Dispositional Correlates. Psychological Bulletin, 136(5), 894–914. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0019993

2Anderson, J. C., Linden, W., & Habra, M. E. (2006). Influence of Apologies and Trait Hostility on 

Recovery from Anger. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 29(4), 347–358. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10865-006-9062-7

3Kirchhoff, J., Wagner, U., & Strack, M. (2012). Apologies: Words of Magic? The Role of Verbal 

Components, Anger Reduction, and Offence Severity. Peace and Conflict, 18(2), 109–130. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0028092

4Gottman, J. M., & Krokoff, L. J. (1989). Marital Interaction and Satisfaction: A Longitudinal 

View. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 57(1), 47–52. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-006X.57.1.47

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