Adding empathy and context to your apology gives it some real healing potential.
Dan: I’m sorry! Really! I didn’t mean to upset you. It was only a joke. Please don’t take it so seriously.
Tracey: Well, it was a damn poor joke! How am I supposed to think what you said was a joke. The truth is, you’ve said that kind of thing in the past and it sure as hell wasn’t a joke then.
Dan: Yeah…I know. I thought we were in a better place. I thought we could be a little playful about stuff that used to cause a lot of arguing. I’m sorry! Can’t you just accept my apology and let it go?
Tracey: No! I can’t just let it go. It hit too close to home. This is stuff I still have a hard time forgetting.
Dan: Jeez! Again, I’m sorry…
Here’s the situation.
Dan screwed up. He created a painful experience that Tracey can’t let go. He’s apologized several times and his apologies are sincere. Tracey knows they’re sincere. Yet, she can’t accept the apology and move on. Why is that?
Apologies are important…even essential. But, unless the infraction is pretty trivial, they don’t wrap the up the event, tie a neat bow around it and set it aside.
What do apologies accomplish? Well, they open the door to a deeper, more healing conversation. They are the key that opens the door. They create a way to cross the threshold. They elicit permission for something more comprehensive. That’s all they are.
Once the apology has opened the door, the hard work can begin. The task ahead is to demonstrate an understanding and appreciation for the offended party’s experience including how that experience fits in history. It’s one thing to recognize the fact that I hurt you. It’s another thing to put that hurt in a historical context. Appreciating the context demonstrates acceptance of the meaning given to the hurt.
My job as the offender is not to simply apologize. It is to take the additional step of letting the offended person know I appreciate how the hurt landed in his/her life and what ripple effects might have been generated.
I’m sorry! I get that you didn’t find my joke funny. Now that I’ve heard your side of things I realize how much what I said brought back stuff from the past for you. I can see that there’s a lot from the past that’s not resolved. I would like for us to spend some time getting that stuff out in the open and dealt with. I know you’re still feeling some pain from things I said years ago and that what I said today just brought all that back up.
Jake Thiessen, PhD
I've been working with couples for a very long time. And, I love it! This blog is my attempt to communicate some of the things I've learned over the past 40 years.