Nov 30, 2016

How to Become an Expert Apologizer

Step 1: mess up a lot.

Not a problem.

I am currently on the outs with my beloved husband.  Nothing major, just one of those weird sudden shifts in mood where we are both tired and don’t really understand what’s going on with each other, and we expect a different reaction than the one we get, and then we say stuff we kind of mean, but mostly don’t.

They say not to go to bed angry, but we both kind of passed out in the middle of the argument, from sheer exhaustion. “Oh yeah? Well this is what I think of YOU! zZZzzzzzz.”

Husband (we will call him Thurl for the purposes of anonymity). Thurl has to leave very early for work so I woke up just as he was leaving, with no time to do any repair work, I hate that.  He rides in a van with several other people so we can’t even talk by phone.

So I just watched him leave, obviously still hurt, or upset, though he rejected both those adjectives along with the nuanced “mad” that I offer, as in, “You still mad?”  “I’m not mad.” Oh good.

A little context: we have a really lovely marriage. I think he’s adorable and he thinks I’m hilarious; he calls me “Beauty” despite all evidence to the contrary and I call him “Love”- please feel free to be nauseous.

 We have learned how to get along pretty well over the course of 25 years, despite a couple of important differences that must have had God chuckling as we stood at the altar.  When things are stressful, I NEED to talk. He HATES to talk when he is stressed.  Note: the past several years have been fraught with illness, death, and financial strain for us, as they have for so many I know.  So, stress. So, more opportunities to learn how to bring our different selves into some kind of harmony.

So right now he is on the stupid Michivan, we are hosting 35 people for Thanksgiving tomorrow and did I mention we are just getting over influenza? What to do, what to do.

In my younger days, I was a fan of the Big Gesture. I would have been in my car driving to his work to apologize.  I still like that approach- it has the virtue of showing the person that you have set aside your life to make sure everything is ok between you. It tends to smash the little ice walls before they get very big.  Sadly, that won’t work today: sick kids, house needs cleaning and food needs preparing.  Other options.

Get to confession and call him after. I was going to go this morning anyway and I need some grace and clarity, which may be redundant.  This has possibilities, though I hate apologizing on the phone. A really good apology involves some form of touch if possible.

I could wait till he gets home, but I hate to let things fester, so phone call it is, and I’ll smooch him later.

I need to remember what I said and try to put myself in his shoes. Right in the middle of an argument, that is so hard to do- you just want to win, or break through, or accomplish some personal goal.  Arguments are about agendas- be they emotional, practical, whatever- the idea of just setting the agenda aside during a fight is heroic. I think I have managed it fewer than ten times in the course of our 30 year relationship, and it has always been incredibly healing and lovely.  I love the shock on his face when I suddenly pull up, calm down, and say, “I see your point. I do. I am sorry I am not really listening right now. Can we start over and just talk about this?” It’s so Dr. Phil.

The problem is I can never remember to try this in the heat of the moment. I am a hothead from Hotheadsville, USA.  Like the Heatmiser from The Year Without a Santa Claus. For that matter, Thurl is the Snowmeiser.  He gets chilly fast, and I get frozen right out the minute my fahrenheit increases.  It’s a defense mechanism, part temperament, and part born of our family cultures.

No one ever, ever yelled in Thurl’s family growing up. No one ever talked about anything important, either. If by some accident, something important came up, and somebody felt hurt or angry, there followed a lockdown where everyone fell silent and watched the game.  Then, later, when everyone was ready, they just calmly and rationally ignored the whole thing for life.

In my family, we had two approaches: one parent was quicker to anger and quicker to forgive. The other was slow to anger, but Katie-bar-the-door once the anger arrived. And forgiveness was, let’s just say, longer in happening. “Dad? I’m sorry I stepped on the freshly poured driveway concrete when you expressly said not to and left my footprints in in for all time. Am I still grounded for two weeks? (cry).”  “Oh, it’s ok. I know you’re sorry. (Hug.)”  vs. Mom being patient for months until we are finally such jerks that she lets loose on us, quite deservedly. “Mom? I am sorry I didn’t clean up the playroom for three years even though you asked me to one thousand times. Am I still grounded? Mom? Mom??”

So I have lifelong experience with the Snowmeiser Way- and I respect it. It has it’s upsides- but it makes apologizing rather a strenuous affair. You’ve got to be really good at it.

Being a Hothead, I have said and done a lot of junk in the HOTM (heat of the moment) that I regretted, sometimes even while I was saying or doing it. So I have had decades of practice at apologizing, and I have gotten pretty darn good at it.  I remember reading somewhere in a story that an older gentleman was reminiscing over his apologies, and how they had made his relationships with people better, so much so that sometimes he would commit a small offense just for the pleasure of making a good apology.  So that’s probably a little mentally ill, but it has its points.

A good apology, a really sincere, warm apology from the heart, is very endearing.  First of all, it’s humble.  To do it, you really have to swallow a giant helping of ego and self-will, and that is hard, and everyone knows it. Second, it shows more concern for the other person than for self, or for carrying the point. This is genuinely sweet, and hard to resist. It’s taking the Lemon of your fight, and making the Lemonade of Love with it. What a tortured, saccharine metaphor.

Once your stomach has settled from that last paragraph, consider this: give the other person a chance to be ready to receive your apology. I am by nature a speedboat: I want to zip in, apologize warmly, and be done with it already. My husband the Ocean Liner takes longer to turn. I had to learn to respect that, and give him a little space to be angry in. If he’s really mad, he takes a nap. Afterwards he is much more amenable to a reconciliation. I used to get my little feelings all hurt because I would say something like, “You are such a big jerk, you understand nothing and I am really sorry I said those hurtful things and I don’t mean it, will you forgive me?” Okay, it probably wasn’t EXACTLY like that, but close enough where he would look at me like, I am not ready to make up yet, and I would have more stuff to be angry about. Lose, lose.

And then sometimes the other person is so egregiously and singlehandedly wrong that a good apology seems like a lie. “Sorry, but Clive is just one hundred percent wrong, and the children’s welfare is at stake. If I apologize, he takes that as confirmation that he is right, and nothing changes.” Sometimes this is true, or almost true (few of us achieve perfection in a disagreement and have nothing whatsoever to concede).

But most often, it’s not. We moms tend to get all dramatic about our kids’ emotional well-being and feel we need to defend them from their hard-hearted daddies, when often what they really NEED is a dose of tough love (please do not read “abuse”) and we are just too empathetic to see it.

Or if it’s just between us, it is rare that the other person has just acted completely unprovoked, unless they are a total creep, in which case you’ve got bigger problems.

In any event, even if the other person IS mostly wrong, there is always something to apologize for if you are interested in finding it.

Nan’s Argument Examination of Conscience:
Was my tone respectful?
Did I slip immediately into a pattern of talking that has never been helpful (“You always.. You never... the problem with your family is that…)?
Did I try, really try, to see it from his point of view?  
Did I bring up all kinds of other things because they are distantly related, and fog the issue? (“I remember back in high school, when you…”)
Did I make it about him personally rather than about the topic (“Why are you so unable to see this?”)?
Did I do something I know he hates during the argument, out of spite? (For us it’s the word “simply.” He hates that word. And I do use it, God forgive me.)
Was I emotionally manipulative (can’t think of what to say = time to cry or withdraw into a stony silence to compel instant guilt and contrition)?

So now that I am writing this, I am thinking of several things I might have done better. I won’t beat myself over the head with it- I was exhausted, he said/did some upsetting stuff too- ok, he was mostly silent, but I find that very upsetting and he knows it.

But I will think clearly and specifically about what I can honestly apologize for. (Dangle away, preposition.)

Then, I will make the actual apology. A couple of rules: no passive aggressive apologies like, “I’m sorry you got so upset.” Um, better to say nothing than that little firestarter.

Really mean it. You have to really BE sorry- this isn’t a formulaic thing: “I did x and x is wrong therefore I apologize. Beeeeep.” If you don’t feel it, even just a little, it is insincere, or just from the Brain. Nobody wants an apology from the Brain. You don’t say, “I love you with all my brain.” When someone hurts you, you don’t say they have broken your brain. You have to apologize from the heart. It takes generosity- you are giving something of yourself away. It is an act of love.

I can’t drive to Lansing today, but I can meet him at his Michivan stop tonight. With the highway under construction, this is an act of True Love. Now, off to confession. Prayers appreciated.

*Incidentally, Thurl Ravenscroft was the voice of Tony the Tiger. Why his name popped into my head I shall never know. Maybe I want Frosted Flakes...

**Thurl called (my husband, not Tony) and apologized while I was on the way to confession. Love wins!


  1. This is great, Nancy!!! Laughing and learning at the same time. I especially love this: "you really have to swallow a giant helping of ego and self-will, and that is hard, and everyone knows it. Second, it shows more concern for the other person than for self, or for carrying the point."
    Your wisdom, example, and humor are a huge inspiration!!! Thanks bunches!!!

  2. Your humor is a winner! Love your wit on such a serious topic. Going to use some of your "Examination of Conscience" tips for sure.


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