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How to Apologize

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Why Apologizing Is Important to Marriage

If the apology never comes from the spouse who has done wrong, resentment can build and present a threat to the marriage. "In marriages, domestic turmoil is often rooted in an unwillingness to apologize…Both are hurt; both are angry; and both have failed, but neither is willing to apologize," writes Chapman and Thomas. "For lack of an apology, they declare war, which sometimes lasts for years and often ends in divorce or death. Partners in healthy marriages are willing to apologize."

In fact, apologizing could mend your relationship in ways you can't even imagine, say experts. "In acknowledging your shame, you give the person who has been wronged, the power to forgive," writes Beverly Engel, author of The Power of Apology (Wiley, July 2001) in her book. "The exchange is at the heart of the healing process."

How to Apologize Correctly

Although necessary, admitting you're wrong is hard to do. The first step in the art of apology is knowing when you need to say you're sorry. "Most people know when they need to apologize because they either feel guilty or their partner has given them a signal of some kind - a hurt look, the silent treatment, etc.," writes Engel in an e-mail. "Generally speaking, we need to apologize when we've offended someone, hurt someone's feelings, neglected someone, or failed to keep a promise."

A simple, "I'm sorry," is never enough. You must carefully choose your words. Think about what you're going to say to your spouse before apologizing. For starters, eliminate all excuses and blame. You must shoulder the responsibility for whatever you've done wrong. For example, writes Engel, you should not say, "I'm sorry I forgot to pick you up, but you should have reminded me." In that case, you're not really apologizing because you're blaming your partner for your mistake.

"The best way to begin an apology is to express regret and empathy, such as, 'I understand why you are angry with me. I really did snap at you last night and that must have really hurt. I'm sorry,'" writes Engel. Making sure to state exactly for what you are apologizing is an important part of the process, says Kador. It shows you know what you've done wrong and is one way to show you are willing to take the responsibility, he adds. For example, saying, "I apologize for missing our date. I have no excuse," is better than just saying, "I'm sorry," says Kador.

Words alone do not make an apology. There's one more step to apologizing that most people forget or don't even know about. Your apology must include regret, responsibility, and remedy, writes Engel. "You need to show that you are sorry and really regret what you have done by expressing empathy toward your partner. You also need to take full responsibility for your actions - no excuses, no blaming someone else," she writes. "Then, you need to offer a remedy of some kind, such as, 'I promise I won't do it again.' For more serious offenses, the remedy might be, 'I think I need to go to therapy to understand why I act this way.'"

Indeed, you have to take action after the apology to prove that you won't continue behaving like this or you won't hurt your spouse in this way again. There has to be evidence that you've learned from this experience and things will be different moving forward or else you'll end up in a pattern that could damage your relationship. "You can not talk your way out of a situation that you acted your way into," says Kador.

Men tend to have more difficulty apologizing than women, mostly because of societal norms and their more competitive nature, says Kador. Men, however, should get over this and start saying they're sorry to their spouses, and women should follow suit if they aren't already because apologies are key to good communication and fighting fairly. "Aside from saying, 'I love you,' saying, 'I'm sorry' (and really meaning it) can be the most powerful words one spouse can say to the other," writes Engel. "It can be translated into, 'I love you more than my pride or my need to look good.'"

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