Apologies are easy.
It’s swallowing that jagged little pill of pride that’s hard.
A genuine apology (with no sneaky agenda) can transform the dynamic in any relationship from a charged adversarial stand-off into the elegant dance of partnership.
A wonderful karma-fixer, an apology can avert years of upset and disconnection.
Too often in my past, making excuses denied the cathartic power of apology in relationships. I often had a reason why I did whatever I did, that upset my girlfriend—that reason stopped me from taking responsibility: “It’s the reason’s fault!” I’d say, “not mine.”
Sometimes I was simply reacting poorly to cringe-inducing behavior, which made it doubly hard to apologize.
“Yes, I intentionally jumped on your car like an angry monkey and made a big dent in the roof, but your screaming and pounding on my car door gave me no other choice!” (It’s a long story).
Here’s the thing:
Whether the excuse is accurate or absurd, it doesn’t matter.
We all act unskillfully at times. Sometimes really unskillfully.
In the face of circumstance or trigger, we do something. That something may be effective and inspiring, like Neo in The Matrix stopping bullets and helicopters! Sometimes, though, it might be unhelpful and just exacerbate the situation, like jumping on a car roof like a monkey.
But, I believe we are all innocent in our ignorance.
If we knew how to conduct ourselves in relationships better, we would do them better. We only react poorly or lash out and hurt people, when we are disoriented or hurting inside. I can’t angrily say, “I hate you!” when I feel good inside.
If we knew how to move perfectly through every situation, we would do so.
But we don’t.
Thus life giveth unto us—the apology.
This morning, I was working with one of my relationship-coaching clients, whose relationship was suddenly in major breakdown. Disheartened and distraught, he was calling me from the hotel he had retreated to the night before.
Fortunately, big breakdowns can be powerful gateways to big breakthroughs.
The bigger the breakdown, the bigger the potential breakthrough.
The details of his situation aren’t important. Essentially, he and his partner were triggered by each other’s actions, that quickly sent them running in opposite directions—for cover as if war had just broken out.
As he sat in the calm of his hotel room, we explored how he could navigate this breakdown in a way that might tease out a meaningful breakthrough. I knew this moment held massive potential for deeper understanding, kindness, connection and love between him and his wife.
After hearing her side the day before, I also knew that his genuine apology was the only way forward, that might stop the hemorrhaging. But, he couldn’t yet see his way there.
So, I offered these three steps to an apology that could turn everything around:
Step 1—“I see me.”
I see what I did that was unskillful. I see how events overwhelmed my capacity to be good with you, and I reacted poorly as a result. I may have done the best I could at the time, or at least the only thing I knew how to do, and I’m sure I could have done it better. I’m sorry.
“I see me” is about taking ownership. Apologies crash when we embed them with this idea: “I only did X because you did Y.” That’s not an apology—it’s a passive-aggressive excuse. It still blames my partner, which makes me a victim.
“I see me” means I see how I didn’t keep my heart open to you—how I failed to respect, honor, cherish, appreciate or love you.
In Step 1, I take responsibility for my role in the breakdown. It may be hard to find my role, but no matter who did what, I can always find it if I look close enough.
After all, I still did jump on her roof.
Step 2—“I see you.”
I can finally see what you really wanted from me—-safety, love, assurance, reliability, presence, participation, kindness, love. I see that I did not give to you. Regardless of my reasons, and regardless whether it’s even my responsibility to give it to you, I didn’t. I see the pain you felt as a result. Whatever you did to deal with that pain, I can see your innocence in that.
“I see you” is about .
It builds a bridge right into your partner’s heart.
By acknowledging my partner’s experience, without making her wrong for it, I let her know she’s safe with me.
It’s my way of saying, whatever you’re going through, I can be with you through that. I know I failed when the breakdown happened, but I’m learning, too. I needed some space to really see myself, to really see you.
I had a hard time offering this in the past. I was usually too focused on my own pain to be even remotely present to hers.
When my awareness of self and other is limited, I react as if everything is happening to me. I live in victimhood.
But we’re all slowly learning how to be masterful in life. We won’t quite nail it every time (or even most of the time).
As I grow in awareness and learn to see more quickly what really happens in myself and others when a breakdown occurs, I can address the situation with a sincere apology that moves us more quickly towards healing.
“I can either be right or I can be happy.” ~ Gerald Jampolsky
The breakdown is only there to show me what I couldn’t see before. Eventually, with awareness, I can immediately give whatever love, attention, presence or kindness a situation needs.
This is all that is waiting on the breakthrough side of a breakdown, anyway.
Step 3—“I love you.”
I absolutely love and adore you. I’m here, ready and willing to work through whatever comes our way. In fact, I love you so much that if your deepest truth is that you want to be alone now, I’ll leave you alone. That’s how much I love you.
“I love you” is the golden capstone on a gorgeous apology. It’s the exhilarating ecstasy we melt into at the moment of apology breakthrough.
I affirm my commitment to loving and honoring my partner, assuring her that regardless where we go from here, I’m committed to love.
It’s not easy for one to keep a hard heart in the presence of such a commitment (though not impossible, if the wounds are deep enough).
Perhaps the most precious gift we can ever receive from another is to be fully seen and loved by them. If so, then the most precious gift we can give another is to fully see and love them, too.
During a breakdown, I fail to see your deeper truth, and my own. Instead I only see my story which is often just a projection of my fears and wounds. I go blind and stop loving. War breaks out.
I’ve discovered that a simple, sincere apology can end that war, easy as one, two, three.
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Author: Bryan Reeves
Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock