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Right & Wrong Cont’d: Apologies and Emergencies

I wrote previously about how right/wrong thinking can be problematic in relationships.  I’d like to expand that today in two common (and usually quite different!) areas: apologies and emergencies.

When Apologies Are Hard

Often in my sessions with couples there will come a point where an apology is needed.  Sometimes one partner will ask for it, sometimes it is just apparent that this is the repair that is called for in the moment.  But it is also often the case that people don’t feel they can or want to apologize.  This can be because they feel too hurt or angry themselves in the moment, but a partner may also worry that apologizing is an admission of being “wrong.”  If you’ve read my previous article about right and wrong you can probably see already that thinking about conflicts in relationships this way can lead to trouble.  Your relationship–and both of you—can all be winners if you each can see your own contributions to the situation as parts of the whole interaction that you co-created.  Often the fear of “admitting wrong” comes from a blaming or right/wrong culture established in the couple.  This is what Sue Johnson refers to as the “find the bad guy” cycle.  This can be exacerbated by individual partners’ difficulty accepting their own imperfections, either from a sense of grandiosity, shame or both.

If the problem is the prior one of feeling too hurt and angry to apologize yourself, it may be a matter of cooling off before attempting the apology.  You might even say, “I’d like to be able to apologize, but I’m just too hot now – let me come back to it when I’m feeling more level.”  Then you have to remember to follow through!

If it’s feelings of shame or grandiosity that are getting in the way, it’s important to recognize those feelings or attitudes and be able to get past them.  If you think you’re too good or perfect to need to apologize, that’s grandiosity.  Often this is tied to feeling shame at the possibility of not being perfect, which can be very painful to feel.  Working with these emotions may require some outside help, as they can be complicated and difficult to understand without outside perspective.

A Good Apology

Once you’ve reduced possible obstacles to apologizing, we come to the apology itself.  Pete Pearson has a great handout on The Power of Apologies, and it’s pretty easy to find articles of varying quality about apologies on the web.  There are several key elements to make an apology effective.  The first is acknowledging personal responsibility, including your contribution to the problem.  This needs to be specific as in, “I hurt you by implying that you’re not competent,” as opposed to something vague and general such as “I’m sorry for anything I might have done.”  Second, you must acknowledge your partner’s distress and its significance to them.  Again, the more specific, the better, as it demonstrates your understanding and caring, e.g., “I know it’s really painful for you when you feel diminished and not valued by me.”  Third is a clear and heartfelt expression of remorse and humility,  along the lines of “I’m really sorry that I did that,” “I feel really bad about it,” or “It makes me sad to see how much I hurt you.”   Finally, indicate an explicit plan to repair damage and improve your responses in the future.  This could be something like, “I want to know what I can do to make you feel better,” and “I’ll work on being more mindful of letting you know how much I value your skills.”   You will have to come up with your own responses to the situation – going through this set of key elements and paying attention to your caring feelings towards your partner will guide you in crafting a good apology.  After walking through it ten or twenty times you’ll be able to do it on your own like a pro!

Right and Wrong in Emergencies

There are times when right and wrong are more appropriate than others.  Perhaps the clearest are emergencies where action needs to be taken quickly, and especially when one partner has expertise in that area.  For example, if a child had a health emergency and one of the parents was a pediatric emergency doctor, it would be natural to give that parent the priority in determining the best course of action.  Of course there are still possibilities for error, and also that the non-expert parent might have some useful perspective, but all other things equal this would not be a place to get into an argument about who is right, the utility of right and wrong in that situation, etc.  However I would suggest reserving this kind of “expert privilege” for the most extreme and imminent threats.  For example, unless one parent is an expert on child abduction, neither parent should claim superior knowledge about how to manage the children in public based on their values, worries about the other parent’s style or perceptions, what they’ve read in the paper, etc.  And most couples conflicts fall into this broader area of values and feelings – not expertise.  By the same token, reading the dishwasher manual, or knowing something about car mechanics, does not confer expertise.  These are all issues to be discussed in terms of intentions, emotions, meanings and desired outcomes, rather than dominance and authority

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