Sometimes the Simple Sound of “Sorry” Stinks

Everyone knows you’re supposed to say “sorry”. It’s the polite thing to do. It’s drummed into us when we are kids along with “please” and “thank you”.  And although it’s more popular in certain generations, such as the parents of millennials, it’s pretty universal.

So, in adulthood it’s no surprise that mumbling “sorry” is the “go to” phrase in many situations. Bump into someone on the street?  “Sorry.” Get carried away with enthusiasm and interrupt someone? “Oh, sorry, go ahead.” Get to an appointment late?  “Oh, sorry I’m late”. We even use it in our digital communications where, without the benefit of audible affect, our sincerity can be even more suspect. We can get really good at saying “sorry” to assuage our own discomfort yet never actually address the impact our behavior has on the other person. What’s up with that?

Thing is, when unconscious or inconsiderate behavior happens, especially with someone who relies on us to have their back, it can trigger big hurt feelings. And “sorry” really doesn’t cut it even if you both act like it does.

Let’s look at this. Just as we each have differences in how we respond to physical touch (our erogenous zones), the connection we have with another, and how we feel in that moment about the relationship, can be enhanced or diminished by our interactions. We need to have a basic core of Self that doesn’t get affected by every blip in daily life; to have adequate healthy self esteem and positive deposits into the relationship so we won’t be derailed by the occasional insensitive action or remark. But let’s face it, we want to be valued and cared for by our partners and friends and when we think this isn’t the case we can hurt.

Sometimes we react to what someone does because it doesn’t fit in with the often unspoken “contract” and expectations we have unknowingly brought into that relationship. Often those expectations are rooted in Family of Origin dynamics that are not easily altered by logic and “reasonable” explanations. In that case, we can often benefit from a few sessions with a couple’s counselor for some tools on how to manage this reoccurring dynamic.

But when the breech is understandable and yet you or the other can’t bounce back immediately, the person committing the offense needs to put more attention on what is needed for an effective apology so the other person feels you truly are sorry for any distress your actions caused.

Therapists call this kind of disconnection after someone is hurt a “rupture” in the relationship.

A rupture is akin to what happens when a zipper gets a snag. All the parts are still there- the two sides of the zipper track (you and the other) — and the pull which hooks the two tracks up — (the activity or dialogue you are having that serves to bring you together) but when there is a snag between the two tracks you can tug on the pull as much as you want and the tracks won’t align — they stay separate and mismatched. In order to restore the connection, you need to repair the zipper — going back to where the tracks got snagged and correcting the alignment.

It’s just the same with hurt feelings — trying to move ahead when there is a rupture always leaves a snag somewhere. And the distance that snag causes doesn’t magically disappear on its own. It needs repair.

Gary Chapman, the 5 Love Languages guy,* says there are also 5 apology languages.  It’s worth going online and taking his short quiz that will tell you which apology approach is best suited to you and to your partner, friend or child. (This is not sufficient for affairs, repeated contempt,  physical violence and other forms of abuse.)

You’ll need to take the quiz to get a description of each category and adequately assess which you fall into, but here is a list of the five:

  1. Make Restitution
  2. Genuinely Repent
  3. Express Regret
  4. Accept Responsibility
  5. Request Forgiveness

One of the joys of being in a relationship is the companionship we feel of walking thru life with someone who understands us and has our back.  Ruptures separate us from these feelings of safety and closeness. It is more than worth the effort to repair even the little hurts that build up over time and give rise to the message that we really don’t care about our relationship with another and that their feelings don’t matter to us.

Using the appropriate apology language and being apologized to with yours, can dramatically shorten the relationship “down time.” Who wants hours of resentment and hurt while people separate to lick their wounds when you can often repair a breech by just better knowing the way to express “sorry” so the other feels your sincerity and caring?

* Check out the 5 Apology Languages and leave a comment sharing how it works for you.

Action step: 30 minutes

Sit with your partner or friend  (or send it to them) and each take this Apology Language Quiz — and then read your and your partner’s results aloud.

Use reflective listening and ask each other to share a bit about their particular style and any historical experiences or Family of Origin patterns that make this especially personal.

Then record and learn down your partner’s preferred apology style and get familiar with it so next time there is a need for an apology you can do it in a way that feels sincere and to the point for your partner. This way you don’t just keep pulling that zipper while one of you is “back there,” but rather can again move ahead with good feelings, trust and safe feelings with each other.

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