Have you heard this line? Love means never having to say I’m sorry—what a bunch of nonsense. If you are in a loving relationship and you don’t say I’m sorry regularly, you probably are on your way to having nothing meaningful in your relationship. When you can’t see, much less own your mistakes, you will alienate everyone around you.
But, is sorry enough? Absolutely not. If all you say is sorry over and over again, never changing your behavior, it becomes an empty phrase that no one takes seriously. I’m sorry is just the beginning.
When I studied relationships at the Gottman Institute, I learned a term I’d never heard before. It was called the repair attempt.
A repair is when something has gone wrong, and there is an intentional attempt to repair or fix the situation. Like a bridge over water, without maintenance and repairs, the elements can deteriorate the bridge’s strength until it is no longer passable. The elements that can deteriorate your marriage are unhealthy patterns of behavior that, while being second nature, what you’ve always done, can over time, tear away at the relationship.
To attempt a repair, there must be humility. Humility allows you to own your part in the problem because we usually have a role to play. Now, we make excuses and say, “Well, if he or she hadn’t done that, then I wouldn’t have acted that way. That’s not humility and owning your actions—that’s justification. There is no justification for bad behavior. It might feel good at the moment, but it will tear away at your marriage.
So, humility helps you own your own part. Another thing that humility will help you do is to consider your and your husband’s actions or reactions from a place of openness. When we are humble enough to consider the feelings of others, to see their point of view, to respect their humanity, we can be open to change. Someone who rests on their false pride can’t see or acknowledge the truth of the situation. You’ve probably heard the phrase pride goes before the fall. Pride will keep you from making a repair attempt every single time.
How to Make a Good Repair Attempt
First, from a place of humility, you say I’m sorry.
Second, convey what you are sorry for and be specific. Not I’m sorry you got so mad, or I’m sorry you took me wrong. No, no, no. You just said, I’m sorry you did what you did. That’s not an apology. I’m sorry is about what you did or what happened. It always needs to focus on you. I’m sorry I spoke to you that way. I’m sorry I screamed or raised my voice. I’m sorry my anger got the best of me. I’m sorry I’ve been giving you the silent treatment and ignoring you. I’m sorry I threw that at your head or pushed you. Yes, I know that sounds extreme, but it happens in marriages. I talked with a lady this week who knew what she did was wrong, but she did it and felt shame. Let me say here that shame is a great emotion to feel if you have done something wrong. It is our best selves telling us what we acted in unseemly ways. It is a healthy emotion to have as long as you don’t allow shame to be a tool to beat yourself up with, to tell yourself you aren’t worth anything. I want to feel shame at my bad behavior, so I’ll be prompted to attempt a repair. And I want to remember that shame I felt when I behave that way, so I don’t repeat it. I don’t like to feel shame. Do you?
Third, share your feelings. When this happens, I feel. When we talk about things and start insulting each other or putting each other down, I feel pain and sadness. Or when you talk to me that way, I feel like you don’t respect me, and I feel anger and pain. When my request is ignored, I feel anger and pain. Or when I think you are not listening to me, I feel like you don’t care about what I have to say. You own your triggers. When this happens, I feel this way.
Fourth, what do you want to do better? I don’t want to do whatever it is you did, and I want to do better, and I will do my best to work on it. I don’t want to scream at you. I don’t want to ignore you with the silent treatment. I don’t want to act out in my pain and anger in ways that hurt you. Now, let me say, at the moment, you probably did want to hurt your husband. That’s understandable, but you can’t solve a problem coming from a place of retaliation.
The last step in a repair attempt is how you and your husband can handle things differently in the future. That would include open sharing of what you both need. Revisit the situation. What needs to happen differently?
Example of a repair attempt
I want to give you a real-life flub I did recently. If you think for one minute I’ve gotten this whole relationship thing down to a science, then let me tell you the truth. I don’t. I’m a work in progress, and I make mistakes, fall into old patterns and behave badly as a result. I have to give myself grace. I’m perfectly imperfect. I’m not a lousy person-not a failure-just human, but now I have an awareness of it and can go back and attempt repairs.
So here’s what happened. It happened with my 20-year-old son. Due to a job change, he has moved back in with us. Anytime an adult child who has been independent moves back in, there is an adjustment phase. It’s still my house, my rules. We work together, not as separate people. It’s the same when kids come home from school in the summer.
We were watching MMA fighting. Yes, I can’t believe I like to watch it. It is so out of character for me, but my youngest son loves it, and it is a way to connect with him. My oldest son said something that irritated me. It was something I’ve talked to him about before, and he totally disregarded my feelings. In my anger, I jumped up, jerked my phone and charger out of the wall, yelled at him, and went into my room and slammed the door. Really a healthy way to deal with my anger, right? In my room all alone, I was overcome with guilt and shame for my behavior. It didn’t matter what he did; I acted badly, which is the only thing I can control. Shame makes me cry, something I don’t always find easy to do. I could barely sleep. I had to tell myself I screwed up, that I wasn’t a bad person, but my behavior was terrible. The following day, I apologized to my husband for my behavior and shared what was happening to me. Then when my son came down, here is the repair attempt I initiated that follows the steps I’ve given you.
Lucas, I am sorry I screamed at you and expressed my anger in an unhealthy manner. It was unacceptable. I feel anger when I hear you say those things. I’ve expressed it before, and when you do it again, I feel like you don’t respect me. I will work on how I communicate my anger better in the future. Could you honor my request? Can you work on this with me? He said he could.
Now he didn’t say he was sorry back to me. That would have been nice, but that is not the point of a repair attempt. You can’t control what anyone does. Only what you do. You can only sweep your side of the street. I also can’t get discombobulate when others don’t make a perfect repair attempt in my family, but I can share it and be an example and hope it rubs off at some point or the other. But that’s not what I’m banking on because, again, I can’t control what anyone else does. I will tell you this, my husband and I agreed to follow this pattern in our repair attempts with one another, and it really helps. So share this with your husband. Have him listen to this episode, or you can jot down the steps and sit down and discuss it.
Remember when I said saying sorry and then doing the same thing over and over again makes your words empty? This is the same with repairs. If you say you are going to work on doing better, do the work. Words are meaningless without actions that back them up.
I hope this helps.
Until next time, keep moving in the direction of improving your relationship every single day.