In honor of Valentine's Day, that infamous holiday full of high expectations and less-than-ideal realities, I thought I'd post an article that I wrote and had published in In Touch Magazine several years ago. Check it out and see if you agree that this topic is most appropriate for the Day of Love and Romance!
My Sincerest Apologies
It was a stalemate. I had apologized and my husband followed suit. But I had also couched my apologies with a snide remark about him being overly sensitive. Likewise, he had explained away his behavior as a reaction to my poor behavior. We sat across from each other feeling no better than we did before we began our apologies. Indeed, we had done a sorry job of saying, “I’m sorry.”
Over 20 years of marriage my husband and I have confessed “I’m sorry” to each other hundreds of times. Actually, he has probably apologized one hundred times to my every one apology – not because he has needed to apologize more, mind you, but because he’s truly the better person. When I feel contrite over an action or misspoken word, the apology formulates in my heart, takes shape in my mind, and then gets stuck like a big wad of paper in my mouth. I believe the theological term for that big wad of paper is pride.
Have you ever tried swallowing a big wad of paper? Even if you haven’t, you probably know how hard it is to deal with your pride and offer a true apology. Most of us have to apologize on some level quite often, whether it's for an honest mistake or willful bad behavior. Apologies are simply a necessary part of relationships. But there’s a difference between a sincere and effective apology that clears the way for reconciliation and one that simply muddies the water.
I remember the first time my husband called me into question for using the word “but” in my apology. I was stunned. I honestly thought I was doing a pretty good job of expressing my regrets. But he explained that whenever you offer your apology and follow it with “but ________________” you actually negate everything previously said. Still perplexed, I put my hands on my hips and challenged his assertion. My husband proceeded to give me the first rule I had ever heard about apologies. Who knew there was a right way to apologize? I certainly didn’t.
“When you say, ‘I’m sorry I didn’t call to tell you I’d be late, but you should have known where I was,’ the ‘but’ statement cancels out the apology. You can’t use the word ‘but’ in an apology,” explained my husband. I didn’t want to admit it, but he was right. I was offering the words of an apology, while still rationalizing my behavior without regard for his feelings. A true apology costs the offender something and shows respect and consideration to the offended without making excuses.
Over the years, my husband and I have settled on a few other guidelines for offering sincere apologies. When we honor those rules the apologies have more sticking power. I’ve even found that with practice apologies get a little easier and the big wad of paper gets stuck in my mouth less often. See if the following tips for effective apologies help you make your amends.
Be real. An insincere apology only stokes the fire. It belittles the other person’s feelings, undermines the offense, and circumvents true repentance. If you do nothing else right, at least offer a sincere apology. Tone of voice, body language, and word choice all communicate the authenticity of my apology, and humility is the key in all three areas. That’s why it’s a good idea to ask for God’s assistance before you attempt to make amends. A careful reading of Philippians 2:1-8 helps me swallow that “big wad of paper” I mentioned earlier. It reminds me that Jesus humbled himself to the point of death for me. Surely I can humble myself enough to apologize with sincerity.
Take responsibility. When I’m uncomfortable I wiggle a lot. Apologizing is very uncomfortable for me. Have you ever tried to offer an apology while wiggling your way out of it as you go? I know I have. But true apologies leave no wiggle room. If I’m really contrite about my actions and concerned about the other person’s feelings, I take responsibility for my actions and the hurt I have caused them. I may say something like, “I didn’t tell you I’d be late for dinner and that was inconsiderate of me.” I don’t have to exaggerate my offense or claim responsibility for things I did not do, but I should be up front about my behavior.
Once I’ve acknowledged my wrong behavior I need to stop right there. I don’t need to add, “I just got busy doing important things,” or “You did the same thing last week,” or “I thought you would know where I was.” Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle. And remember my husband’s rule: “buts” wiggle you out of the apology every time.
Acknowledge their feelings. The Bible tells us in Philippians 2:3-4 that we shouldn’t only look at things from our own vantage point, but should consider others’ feelings first. For the sake of reconciliation I may need to put my own feelings aside and take into account how my actions affected the other person. Let’s face it, sometimes the other person claims our actions hurt them and we just don’t understand why. The same behavior would not have fazed us in the least, or so we think. But regardless of how we would have responded to the same treatment, we can at least value the other person enough to acknowledge their feelings. I might not care if my friend forgets my birthday, but if I overlook her 40th and it causes her to question my love for her, I need to value her feelings. I could simply say, “I see that my thoughtlessness hurt your feelings and made you think I don’t care.”
Say “I’m Sorry.” Perhaps those words are slightly overused, but they still have a powerful place in a sincere apology. By saying “I’m sorry” I tell the one I’ve offended that I regret the hurt I’ve caused them, whether I’ve hurt their feelings, stepped on their toe, or ignited their anger. Of course, you can word your regrets in other ways: “It breaks my heart that I hurt your feelings,” “I regret the pain I caused you,” or “I am so ashamed of my words and how they hurt you.” Just keep it sincere.
Ask for forgiveness. Asking for forgiveness is often the step that actually seals the deal. It puts the ball back in the other person’s court, giving them the opportunity to erase your debt and credit you a little good will. It tells them you value the relationship enough to seek their renewed good favor.
When I ask my son to forgive me for picking him up from school late, I let him know that I esteem him and his forgiveness is important to me. Conversely, if I simply say I’m sorry and continue on without granting him the opportunity to issue forgiveness, I communicate to him that he just needs to get over it, deal with it, get a grip. While I may have expressed some regret, I haven’t shown him much respect or honor.
Listen and let go. Just when you think you’ve offered a humdinger of an apology, you realize it’s not over yet. Unfortunately, by asking for the offended party’s forgiveness, you’ve just granted them permission to express themselves. You may be blessed with a simple response of “Ok. You’re forgiven. Let’s move on.” But you may hear something more like, “Fine, but next time… and I would never do that to you… and I hope you’ve learned… and it may just take me a while to get over this…” Sound familiar?
At this point you can either cough up the big wad of paper (pride) that you swallowed in order to apologize in the first place or you can listen and let go. If you want to go back into the ring for round two, go ahead. Just remember, you’ll have to cycle back through the whole apology again eventually. Do you really want to do that? On the other hand, if you keep the humble attitude of Christ in I Peter 2:21-24, you can usher in true reconciliation and peace much sooner. Jesus didn’t yell back from the cross at those hurling insults at him. He didn’t call down a legion of angels to set them straight either. He just died for them instead. True apologies require a sort of death as well – a death to self.
Indeed there is an art to offering a true and effective apology. Who knew? But the good news is, for most of us, there are plenty of opportunities for practice.