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Monday, May 19, 2014

Miraculous Therapy Mondays: Sorry May Be the Hardest Word In Any Language

Here's a repost from a year ago that is still appropriate. Do you know how to apologize? 
Thought for the Day: I have not shared a Miraculous Therapy Mondays post for a while. These are posts which reflect on marriage therapy and times that it has helped heal couples who's relationship was on the brink of divorce. Today, I am thinking about a session which happened recently. I'm not sure yet whether any miracles happened or whether the marriage is beyond salvaging; however, the session led to thoughts on how and why apologies work or fall flat. Sorry may be the hardest word to say in any language. Recently, in a post called Sex, Lies, Love and Psychology, I wrote about the importance of teaching the 4th 'R,' Relationships, in schools from kindergarten through 12the grade. Given what I often see in couples' therapy, many people have failed to learn the art of apologizing.

Without revealing anything confidential, the couple I was working with has been married for 15 years and have 4 wonderful children. They have been challenged by the wife, let's call her Arlene's physical (fibromyalgia) and emotional (depression and addictions) challenges. Each time she slips, uses drugs and behaves inappropriately, it is followed by remorse and apologies. Unfortunately, as the behaviors keep reoccurring the apologies hold less and less credibility. Here's why...

Arlene's apologies always seem to have strings attached. She will say, "I'm sorry I drank again, yelled at the kids, broke your cell phone or whatever may have happened, but you don't understand how much pain I have had from the fibromyalgia." Or, "I'm sorry, I was a jerk, but you don't show any compassion for my illness and I just lose it when you don't understand." Or, "I hate myself for _______, I'm worthless, I don't deserve to live." Other times, she says, "I'm sorry, but why can't we just start all over with a clean slate and treat one another in loving ways?"

Arlene grew up in a household with a father who was both physically and emotionally abusive. To this day he has never apologized for the abuse. As a child, Arlene never understood what she had done wrong to warrant the abuse. She grew up feeling worthless. She learned to pay lip service and would apologize to avoid further abuse. Secretly, however, she justified her behavior since her father caused her so much unwarranted pain. When her husband is angry about her relapses, she feels the way she did with her father. Although she did not deserve to be abused as a child, she never learned to own her rebellious behaviors which are now sabotaging her marriage.

Arlene's husband, let's call him George, no longer believes Arlene's apologies. His patience is wearing thin. He stays in the marriage for the children's sake, but other than interactions to care for the kids, they spend very little time together.

It is much harder to teach adults to own responsibility for their actions and to apologize sincerely. Each time that Arlene relapses into her egregious behaviors, George distances further from his wife. Arlene can't seem to understand why he cannot just forgive her and show her affection again. George is too angry and afraid to get hurt again to allow himself to get close.

Parents who teach their children about apologizing know to make the child take a time out and think about what they have done. When they return, just saying I'm sorry is not enough. The child needs to figure out why their behavior was inappropriate, own it and accept the consequences. Sometimes it warrants asking the child what they think the punishment for the behavior should be. If the child picks an adequate consequence, parents can carry it out. If not they try to help them understand why it is too severe or not serious enough.

Arlene never had help from her parents and the process of learning to apologize is not easy for her. I let her know that our work is cut out for us. I must help her learn to accept responsibility for her actions without feeling worthless, depressed or suicidal. If their marriage has any chance of surviving, she must own her behavior, accept that it was wrong and learn ways to avoid it in the future. If she becomes defensive or tries to justify her behavior while apologizing, she has missed the point.

Talking about these issues with George in the room may help him gain insight into the challenges he and his wife face. He may not be able to wait. Hopefully, he is not beyond the point of no return. Time will tell.

What helps you apologize when you have made a mistake? How did you learn to accept responsibility for your mistakes?

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