When tension dominates your marriage, no one is happy. Even if the problem (or problems) aren’t at the center of every conversation, there’s still a cloud hanging over the relationship that prevents couples from moving forward into healthier, happier territory.
Whether it’s an issue large or small, unresolved disputes are little worms that eat away at your marital bliss. Whether you’re ignoring them on purpose, can’t get on the same page when you talk about them, or simply haven’t gotten around to addressing problems directly, the longer they stay under the surface, the more damage they cause.
You might not even think the issue is a big deal, but if your spouse does – then it IS a big enough deal to address directly, patiently, and immediately.
And here’s the most important part – even if you don’t think it’s a big deal, your spouse isn’t going to “just get over it” with time. If feelings have been hurt, trust betrayed, or if an ongoing issue is causing tension, ignoring it is not going to make things better.
If you want your spouse to “get over it” (and you should), you have to apologize.
Now, any old apology won’t do – it has to be a heartfelt message that shows your spouse that you recognize what happened, regret it, and are making efforts not to repeat the behavior.
We break it down into these 7 Steps For An Effective Apology:
1. Figure Out What Happened
First you have to know exactly what happened. Try to look at the issue – whatever it may be – as objectively as possible. What was said? Who did what?
This isn’t the time to place blame or defend yourself. Simply try to get an accurate picture of the problem as it really is. This may mean asking your spouse’s opinion of the scenario as well – but do your best to avoid conflict here.
Let them know you are evaluating the situation so you can understand it thoroughly.
2. Figure Out Why
Once you know WHAT happened, you can get to work on understanding WHY. This is where you critically evaluate the factors that led to the problem in question. Is it a communication issue? Were you stressed about work and taking it out on your spouse? Are dissatisfied about something but haven’t found a way to bring it up? Are you feeling neglected?
The answer will be different for every situation, but by exploring the “why” of the matter, you can understand all the factors in play – and through that understanding, avoid repeating the problem.
3. Express Regret
Even if you don’t think you’re in the wrong, whatever happened still caused a problem in the marriage – and that alone should be cause for regret.
For your apology to truly work, your spouse needs to know that you sincerely regret causing them emotional distress. This part isn’t about who did what or whose fault it is – it’s about showing your spouse that you care about their happiness and emotional wellbeing.
This is particularly effective if you use “I” statements like, “I’m sorry I made you feel like you couldn’t trust me,” or “I’m sorry I wasn’t paying attention to you.”
Be direct and express your regret for the part you played in the problem.
4. Accept Responsibility
Now that you know the “why” – and have expressed regret for causing your spouse to feel upset – it’s time to fully accept responsibility for your words and actions. This isn’t the time to make excuses or deflect blame. Own your part.
Again, even if you maintain a position that you weren’t entirely in the wrong, or if your spouse was also contributing to the problems, you certainly had a part to play – and you won’t be able to move forward as a couple until you fess up to it directly, and in no uncertain terms.
5. Don’t Repeat The Problem
While we might not be able to guarantee that an issue will 100% never happen again, we can go to every effort to make sure that it doesn’t. This goes back to understanding the “what” and “why” in thorough detail.
If you know the factors that lead to a problem, then you have some warning signs to go on. Promise your spouse that you will do everything in your power to avoid the problem in the future, and take steps to change your habits and behaviors to keep this promise.
If it stays at the front of your mind, you can keep yourself in check.
6. Make Amends
In this step, you do what you can to “make it right” for your spouse. That may mean letting them vent some frustrations, it could mean seeing a counselor for anger or substance abuse, it could mean committing to spending together or helping more with household responsibilities – again, this will depend on your unique situation!
The point is to show your dedication to making things better.
7. Ask For Forgiveness
As the final portion of an effective apology, after you’ve expressed your regret, begun your new and improved behaviors, understand the “what” and “why” of the problems, and put forth the effort to make amends, NOW you can ask your spouse for forgiveness.
It may take time to reach this point, but once you do, you and your spouse have to understand that if you agree to forgiveness, you have to put the issue behind you. No more dredging it up during other arguments, no more holding grudges…
If your spouse truly agrees to forgive you, they have to stick to it! That is why these steps are so important – if you don’t take care of the “prerequisites” for forgiveness, it’s that much harder for your spouse to genuinely forgive.
Without going through these steps, they may have doubts about your commitment to improving, have doubts that you truly understand how your actions made them feel, etc.
Forgiveness is the very last part of the apology for good reason – it takes all those other pieces, each with its own importance, to get to a place where forgiveness can be genuine and lasting.
So, with all of this in mind, you can understand how “just get over it” is a totally unrealistic request. It’s going to take a lot more than that to truly move beyond a problem, but once you do, it will be well worth it. Otherwise, the pain and resentment from your problems will fester, slowly chipping away at the strength of your marriage the longer it goes unaddressed.