You have had another relationship, unbeknownst to your partner, and he/she/they just found out. You feel your heart beat quicken and that moment of panic sets in. You are in hot water. What do you say? How do you fix this? End this uncomfortable moment? Then it comes out— “that person didn’t mean anything to me!”
Adding fuel to the fire
You look at your partner and instead of those words making he/she/they feel better you quickly notice they seem more upset. I have spoken to many couples about this very sentence. It is upsetting. It is hurtful. No one has ever said, “oh since that person doesn’t mean anything to you, I am ok now.” If anything it makes the whole situation much worse. But why? Why does this single phrase anger people so much?
It is because when you say those words, what your partner is really thinking is: what does that make me? If you can cheat on your supposedly important partner with someone that is meaningless, then this meaningless person trumps your partner. This just makes your partner feel even smaller. Because you made the choice to harm your relationship with your partner by having relations with this other person, you are telling your partner that they do not mean as much as this person. Therefore, making the statement “they didn’t mean anything” is you telling your partner they are meaningless. It is just another way to add insult to injury.
Therefore, making the statement “he/she/they didn’t mean anything” may get you deeper into hot water. Rather than digging through your brain to say something when the tension is high, own up to it instead. Saying “I am sorry” is a good start. Consider seeking the help of a licensed counselor individually, or as a couple, to help you through this.
It happens. Sometimes we DO say or do things that we don’t mean to. Sometimes we unintentionally hurt another in some way. Maybe we aren’t thinking clearly at the time. Maybe there is some deeper reason for our actions. It is natural to immediately want to explain to your partner that you “didn’t mean it.” I hear this phrase a lot when speaking to couples. Unfortunately the reality is, those words are not helpful. Explaining how you didn’t mean it, doesn’t cut it.
Sometimes hearing those words just angers the other partner. But why? In your mind you are thinking you really didn’t mean it, you are sorry, and you wish you could take it back. To your partner the damage is done. You can’t change the past. It is not helpful to argue whether or not you intended to cause pain. That is not what is in question right now.
Your partner is hurt. Whatever you did is not sitting well in their heart. They feel sad and angry at the actions you made. Own up to them. You did what you did. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t mean to do what you did. It matters that you did it. So going back to our earlier post, stop making excuses. Tell your partner you are truly sorry. Tell them you messed up. You made a mistake. Be honest. Show them you may not be perfect but it doesn’t mean you can’t grow and learn from your actions.
Be genuine, be respectful of their feelings. Try to see things from their point of view. How are they feeling right now? How would you be feeling? Then tell them how you wish you could take it back, how you are sorry, how you will learn from your mistakes.
What is the best way to apologize?
So, here you are. You have done something that has hurt another. You feel horrible. You just want to fix things. Make everything all better. What should you say? What can you say?
First of all, talk. Talk to the person. Communication is key. You can’t run away from your mistakes. Tell them you are sorry. Be genuine. Don’t back up your “I’m sorry” with an excuse. You hurt someone. Take ownership. Ask them how they feel? Ask them what you can say to make things better. Listen to what they have to say. Look them in the eyes. Make sure you are in a quiet, uninterrupted space. Ask them, explain to them how you can/will, change your actions in the future. This will help to open the door to how things might be repaired, if they are able.
So often we apologize and then immediately jump into defending ourselves. We are trying to justify our actions and make ourselves feel better, but what is that saying to the other person? By justifying our actions we are saying we had a right to hurt this person. Of course, you want to protect yourself, but you still hurt another and you should take ownership of that mistake. Acknowledge you were wrong. No one is perfect. We all do things we wish we could take back. Look at how you have wronged another and grow. Learn. Really, truly apologize.
Depending on how you hurt this person, and who the person is, repairing this relationship might be easy or impossible. But, regardless, of the end game. The best thing you can do to show another that they are valued and didn’t deserve what you did to them is to buck up and admit you were not right. End the excuses.
When my Chinese mom felt bad about something she had done or said, she would serve up a giant bowl of rice with my favorite topping. That was her way of saying “sorry.” These actions are not uncommon in the Chinese culture, or among older generations.
Different cultures and different generations have different ways of apologizing. It is similar to the five languages of love—the theory that there are five different ways that people show and accept emotional love, for example someone might show they love another by doing acts of kindness and another might need more physical contact to feel they are loved. There are many different ways of saying ‘sorry.’ It could come in the form of doing something nice, like cleaning or fixing a delicious meal or sharing a favorite treat. It could be a surprise outing or it could be nothing at all.
Much of the older generation don’t apologize at all. They don’t want to admit to their children that they don’t always do right. Parents are often looked at by their children as if they can do no wrong and parents embrace that image. It is a hard thing to apologize to anyone, let alone your children. When the older generation of parents were children they were taught about hierarchy in family. They were taught to respect their elders, which means never to call them out when they might be doing something wrong. They were taught that the elders always knew best and therefore never expected an apology from them. That engrained belief makes it highly uncomfortable for the older generations to say “I am sorry” to their children.
Despite a lack of verbally communicating their regrettable feelings, it does not mean they aren’t truly sorry. Many times these things come out in actions rather than words. Sometimes you just have to look at the relationship and the actions following. While no parents should get a free pass from their children if they have done wrong, it is all part of unconditional love and acceptance. As the child, you must learn to accept that different cultures and different generations respond differently. And, you need to look at your parents as a whole rather than just the parts of however they have wronged you. No one is perfect even if as children we sometimes expect our parents to be the keepers of knowledge and to do no wrong.
How does your parent apologize, if any?