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The Power of Apology

  • Dr. David B. Hawkins Director, The Marriage Recovery Center
  • Updated Jul 13, 2009
The Power of Apology

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“Look,” Peter said angrily to his wife, Janice. “I told you I’m sorry. What else do you expect from me?”

I watched Janice for her reaction to Peter’s stern words. I could sense her bristle as his words fell short of a sincere apology for his angry outburst a few moments earlier. 

“You just yelled at me for nothing,” she said incredulously. “I’d like to feel like you’re sorry for hurting my feelings.”

“I can’t be responsible for how you take things,” Peter said nonchalantly. “I said I’m sorry and that should be the end to it.”

“Well, it’s not the end to it,” she continued. “You blew up in here like you blow up at home. This is what I live with and I’m tired of it. I’m not at all convinced you’re really sorry. If you were sorry you’d show a godly sorrow.”

“I’m really tired of hearing that phrase,” Peter said. Turning to me, he continued his questioning.

“So, doctor, I’m lost here,” he said with obvious exasperation. “What more do I have to do. What in the world does a ‘godly sorrow’ look like? What am I missing here?”

“I’m glad you asked, Peter,” I said. “Let’s talk about some of the qualities people normally look for in an apology. We can also talk some more about what I think Janice means when she says ‘a godly sorrow.’”

Starting to share my thoughts, I decided it would be better coming from Janice.

“Janice, why don’t you share what you’re looking for from Peter.

“Okay,” she said slowly. “First, I’d like to think that if you’re really sorry your behavior would change. I’d like to think you feel enough sadness for the impact of your anger on me that you would stop blowing up. But, you continue to blow up.”

Peter stared at Janice stoically.

“Second,” she continued, “I’d like to sense you are sorry for hurting me. I’d like to sense that you are remorseful for what your anger does to me. Your anger is killing me. I never know when you’re going to blow up.”

“Okay,” he said, still showing little emotion. “What else?”

“I’d like you to care enough about the problem to get help. You keep saying you can manage this problem on your own, but nothing changes. I’d like to see you take ownership of how serious the problem is and then to take steps to remedy the problem.”

“Well,” he said loudly, “I can tell you I’m not going to any weird anger management classes, so you can forget about that right now.”

Peter became more defensive and irritated the more requests Janice made. If there was any chance of him taking action on his anger problem, it seemed to disappear by the minute.

“Peter,” I said. “Are you sorry for creating distrust and fear in Janice?”

“Sure,” he said. “But, I don’t need classes.”

“Maybe you do, and maybe you don’t,” I said. “But, what if she wants you to get some help? Wouldn’t that be worth something?”

“Nope,” he said flatly. “Not going to happen. I agreed to come and see you and that’s enough.”

Peter’s defensiveness and unwillingness to truly apologize made me think more about the importance of apologies. I shared with them the three-step approach to a sincere apology—something I call The Three R’s:

First, a sincere apology includes a statement of Remorse. Yes, it begins simply—you state that you are truly sorry for what you’ve done. In Peter’s case, he needed to tell Janice he felt sad for hurting Janice with his angry outburst and the hurting words.

Second, a sincere apology includes a statement of Responsibility. This means we accept and understand the impact our behavior has on the injured party. In Peter’s case, this meant he needed to tell Janice that he understood his anger kept her on guard, always anxious about when he would blow up again. He needed to take responsibility for the fact that his anger created an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty.

Finally, a sincere apology includes Restitution. This means that we’re willing to take whatever steps are necessary to make it up to the injured person. To some extent this means we listen to what they need from us. Humbling ourselves, we listen to what they need to feel safe again. We are paying back something we’ve taken from them.

For Peter, because he had a history of apologizing and then repeating the same behavior, restitution would be costly. Janice wanted him to “pay her back” by taking significant steps to reassure her he was dealing with his anger problem. This meant he would need to be willing, and in fact embrace, taking classes designed to overcome anger problems.

The Three R’s are strong medicine. Many want to take shortcuts, applying simple solutions to complex problems. We’re surprised when these simplistic solutions fail to truly heal wounds. Strong medicine, however, is what is needed.

As you reflect upon your marriage, consider where there are repeated wounds. Consider the shortcuts taken to try to gloss over significant problems in an effort to avoid taking strong medicine. Consider introducing the Three R’s to your marital problems—not in a punitive manner, but as a way of enacting real change.

If you struggle with a problem of deception in your marriage, introduce the Three R’s.

If there has been a lack of true healing from unfaithfulness, try the Three R’s.

If there is an ongoing issue with addiction of any kind, consider the Three R’s.

I’d love to hear how these strategies work for you. Please feel free to contact me for further information or advice on Marriage Intensives or consultations on what may be needed to assist you in your marriage. Share your concerns.

Dr. Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recover Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including When Pleasing Others Is Hurting You, Love Lost: Living Beyond a Broken Marriage, and Saying It So He'll Listen. His newest books are titled  The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Healing a Hurting Relationship and  The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Living Beyond Guilt.  Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.