Matt sat quietly on the couch in my counseling office with his arm folded softly across his middle. “You threw me under the bus,” he said to his wife Mindy. “You made me look like a lazy a#$ in front of everyone! I work really hard around the house: I load the dishwasher every night, I do laundry, I take care of the lawn work, I grill whenever you ask me to… I’m not some d*^%&# who sits around doing nothing.”
Mindy looked at him, taking in his posture and his voice and responded, “We were just having fun. I didn’t know it was such a big deal for you, geez. I’m sorry you felt that way, but that’s not at all what I remember happening.”
“How can you talk to me like that after I just told you how I felt?!” Matt raised the pitch of his voice, feeling dismissed and misunderstood.
The names above are changed for anonymity, but the scenario could be found in anyone’s kitchen. In this case, Matt wants his wife Mindy to hear his hurt over social embarrassment, her not having positive regard for him in the presence of others. When he expresses his hurt (granted, not exactly in a non-critical way), Mindy responds defensively and shares her own memory of the event. She does include the word “sorry,” so does that make her statement an act of contrition? Has she made it right?
“I’m sorry you feel that way.”
These words are famously called a Non-Apology. Sorry Not Sorry. A Fauxpology.
Many attorneys and politicians pride themselves on their ability to provide a false apology, looking sincere while pushing the problem back onto the other party. A telephone representative of a technical support company once told me that they are specifically instructed never to apologize or admit fault to a customer expressing a complaint, even if the company has made a real mistake. But if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of these words in a marriage, friendship, or with a co-worker, I’m sure, “I’m sorry you feel that way” didn’t cut it. Any “sorry” that’s followed by “you,” rather than “I,” runs the risk of being a non-apology. Take these examples into consideration:
- “I’m sorry you’ve felt hurt…”
- “I’m sorry you didn’t get the joke…”
- “I’m sorry if you…”
- “Sorry you’re upset.”
Hopefully, at this point, I’m not giving any ideas that make you say, “This is fabulous! I’m going to use this next time someone tells me they’re upset with me!” These phrases each dig a deeper hole for the relationship to recover from, and unless you’re a narcissist who believes you’re perfect, everyone has to apologize at some point for their mistakes. In this case, Mindy’s primary mistake (outside my office) was embarrassing her husband (probably rooted in some need for social acceptance from friends in the moment, or perhaps, she does have an actual complaint about household task division that she was using passive-aggressive means to express to Matt). But in the conversation above (inside my office), Mindy actually creates a secondary hurt for Matt. Because of her reluctance to admit a mistake or own her role in causing him hurt, she invalidates his feelings and actually escalates the conflict, sabotaging what she intended – which was to minimize the tension by deflecting and dismissing it as no big deal.
When we offer a phrase like “I’m sorry you feel that way,” we are essentially apologizing on behalf of the other person. It implies that we believe they are at fault. We are apologizing for the other person’s feelings. Do we have that right? Perhaps the proper response from the other party would be, “Why are you apologizing for the way I feel? My feelings are a valid outcome of the experience I just had with you.”
So how do you apologize correctly?
1. Try to see past the criticism to what can be inferred about your partner’s feelings, even if he isn’t saying it. Matt probably put Mindy on guard with his “You threw me under the bus” statements. Often a wounded partner will come out in attack mode, trying to express his pain by describing your behavior, rather than his own vulnerable feelings. Because he’s hurting and that often inhibits the brain’s ability to express clear ideas through speech, Matt can’t necessarily zero in on the words to describe his experience. Mindy could start with, “You felt embarrassed in front of our friends because of my joke.”
2. Ask your partner to confirm or expand on his experience: “You felt embarrassed in front of our friends because of my joke, is that right?” This gives Matt a chance to find language for his feelings if they go deeper, which you should be prepared to hear about if they do (remember to see past criticism with empathy). Don’t move forward until it’s clear what you’re apologizing for. This part of the conversation could be a momentary “yes,” or it could be much longer, depending on the hurt.
3. Offer a clear apology regarding your own actions. Rather than, “I’m sorry you felt that way, but…”, Mindy could offer, “I’m sorry I told that joke because it embarrassed you.” This statement both acknowledges Mindy’s specific action that seems to have caused Matt’s discomfort, as well as a reflection of its effect on his well being.
4. Ask for forgiveness. Forgiveness is not for you. The ritual of forgiveness in the relationship is for the person who is hurt. Offering the apology is your acknowledgement that you want to reconnect, and your partner’s offering forgiveness is a reciprocation that he too wants to reconnect after a problem. Uttering “I forgive you” means the hurt partner is ready to close the loop.
These four steps work for romantic partners, but they’re also great skills to teach our children for their own future marriages, friendships and work relationships!