That title sounds crazy, doesn’t it?
Yet, we all make hundreds of mistakes a day. From typos, spilled milk, accidents, lost keys, slips-of-the-tongue, to the mistakes we make in selfishness, hurt, fear, or ignorance.
We make mistakes. All of us make mistakes — every single one of us.
Mistakes are how we learn and grow. It is in our failures that we learn what NOT to do, how to improve, what it is we want, and how to grow. This is perhaps truest in relationships as we learn what works and doesn’t with each other.
And yet, the very act of acknowledging those mistakes seems so hard for us to do.
In our intimate relationships, this dance between our abundant mistakes and our ability and willingness to repair them causes a tremendous amount of grief. When mistakes are made, we often fight about who made the mistake, whose fault it is, why it is or isn’t important — which becomes mistakes on top of mistakes on top of mistakes.
Yet it is not the mistakes that ultimately cause any damage to a relationship, it is the absence of repair that causes the harm.
Repairing for a mistake creates learning, and in a relationship, connection and trust. Acknowledging both to ourselves and to our partner that our actions, words, or inactions were mistakes solidifies that we are committed to learning not to repeat the mistake. More important than that, offering repair helps us forgive ourselves, grow and create the relationship we want and need.
Failing to repair creates the belief that our feelings do not matter, WE do not matter to our partner as much as them being right matters. Un-repaired hurts are stored in our brains (our procedural memory if you want to be fancy about it) as things we start to expect and anticipate from our partner. We grow increasingly sensitive to mistakes like the original one until we are so sensitive to that 'type' of mistake that any word or gesture similar feels the same as the original sin. Learn to prevent this by learning good repair!
If it's so important, why don't we do it?
Too often, none of us know how to make a successful repair and we are so afraid of getting it wrong and making it worse, we avoid it! We did not learn how to do this from our parents and we learned that admitting mistakes was somehow a weakness and a flaw. And so we stumble through our relationships, afraid to admit our mistakes and repair them. In this natural self-protection, we hurt ourselves and our partner and create a distance that continues to grow.
Repair creates the greatest possibility for genuine and meaningful connections in our relationship. Owning our flaws and apologizing when they hurt others also models something very important to our children and our communities.
Repair creates the greatest opportunity for healing and connection.
We show we are willing to put our partner above our need to be right
We demonstrate our care for our partner
We demonstrate our willingness to be vulnerable.
But how do we do it?
The first key bit of information is that a positive repair is a team sport. It takes both the person who made the mistake and the person hurt by the mistake to create repair. Let’s walk through the ways to create a powerful repair that frees both of you from the hurt you are carrying. It also creates the safety in your relationship to be fully yourself -- to be flawed and make mistakes and be vulnerable together in learning from those mistakes.
First, before we get to the proper way to apologize, let me clear up how NOT to apologize.
Do not provide NON APOLOGIES:
“I am sorry you feel that way” is not an apology. That is what I call a “non-apology”. That is saying, “I am sorry you are crazy enough to feel like that.” “I am sorry you are broken like that.” “I am sorry you are dumb enough to have those feelings.” Saying I am sorry you feel that way takes no responsibilities, fixes nothing and usually makes things worse.
“I am sorry, BUT…” is not an apology, but rather an explanation, rationalization, or justification for your actions that serve you rather than helping your partner. “I am sorry but I was tired”. “I am sorry BUT I needed….” In doing this, you are just making excuses and not actually apologizing. This usually inflames the fight and never repairs the injury.
Offering the quick “Sorry!” without care or feeling is also ineffective and potentially harmful. This is referred to as the “throwaway apology” because it is missing the genuine care and intention needed to heal. Worse still, adding, “Are you happy now?” or an angry “Fine, I am sorry!” or “Ok, ok, OK, I am sorry!” uses some of the right words, but delivers them with anger, which does nothing to help the situation and usually worsens hurt feelings.
Finally, the “apology pity party” includes some version of, “I am the worst partner in the world, I am so terrible, I am evil, please forgive me, poor you having to be in a relationship with me.” This serves to get attention for how bad you feel for causing the harm, rather than the focus going to the person injured. This requires the injured partner to care for the person who hurt them and creates an imbalance in support and care that causes significant damage.
Who, in addition to me, has done some version of these? For those of us who were not taught properly to apologize by our parents, who experienced shame or punishment for our mistakes, we bungle apologies left and right. This is how we learn. Knowing what not to do helps us create space for more effective ways to repair.
So what does an effective repair does look like?
After you have checked that they are ready to receive a repair, invite them to sit facing you. Eye contact is critical to a successful repair as you assess how each other is doing.
1. First, make your partner’s well-being more important than being right. Even if your
partner’s memory or perspective is inaccurate, listening to, showing genuine care and
taking responsibility for their experience helps them feel loved. Over time this experience
helps them feel secure in the relationship and creates openness and compassion in both
2. Take the time to fully understand the injury. Listen carefully and let your partner tell you about their experience. Give them as much time as needed. If you have been
paying close attention to your partner, you already know what and how you have injured
them. In doing so, you can offer repair without them needing to tell you what hurts.
Knowing your partner’s vulnerabilities and making their need more important than what
you think they need is critical.
3. Learn to “lead with relief” in making care for them the first priority. Focus attention on your partner’s physical, facial and verbal cues to assess their feelings. If you see distress, immediately do or say something to soothe and help them feel loved and secure before proceeding to the repair. Remember–whoever is in the most distress gets attention first, and you take care of your partner until they are once again feeling safe and cared for.
4. Practice using words, gestures, physical actions that work. Offer the phrases that soothe
your partner. Short and simple has the most immediate effect: “I am sorry,” “I love you,”
and “I am here” are all good examples of targeted phrases that regulate the nervous system.
5. Finally, check and Adjust. Does your partner look better, the same, or worse? If your
partner looks better, check “Did I get everything?” If they look the same, check “What did
I miss?” If they look worse, return to step one, with curiosity and care. “It looks like I got
it wrong. Tell me what you needed instead.” Then go back through the steps above.
While this may seem arduous at first, taking the time to practice these steps will help you learn how to do this.
How to Receive A Repair:
Now for the receiving player on the team: Learning to receive a repair with grace, care and compassion is as important as learning how to offer an apology.
As humans, our attachment to winning and being right will often trump our desire for connection in receiving repair. Learning to tame these impulses takes practicing compassion and humility and is as critical in creating a culture of safety for each other to be our imperfect selves. Doing so creates the greatest opportunity for you both to grow into the people you both want to be.
First, when your partner comes to you to offer a repair, prepare to receive them. It is incredibly vulnerable to come forward and admit mistakes. This is something you need and want when you are hurt, so work to encourage your partner’s efforts to fix the mistakes they have made. Check-in with yourself and make sure you are ready to be offered this gift. If you know you are not, let your partner know gently that you are not ready for a repair. Offer a “thank you, but I am not ready.” Following this, disengage and do something to support yourself in calming yourself to be ready to receive the repair.
When you are ready, sit facing eye contact and take a minute to breathe a prepare to listen to your partner. Remind yourself that your partner is preparing to offer you something. Remind yourself that you are a key member of the team in this going well.
Listen to your partner’s offer, looking for the effort they are making on your behalf.
Following their words of apology, in receiving a genuine attempt at a repair, the only appropriate response is “Thank You.” To criticize a genuine attempt is to cause injury. Repairing is a very vulnerable act. If done genuinely, even when improperly, your first job is to thank your partner for the attempt to encourage them in taking responsibility and to feel safe in doing so.
If the injury is not fully repaired, gently tell them so AFTER thanking them. That feedback is offered gently and with humility. “Thank you for the apology. I appreciate it. I still have feelings about what happened, but I appreciate your apology.” You pause and collaborate with them going through the steps again with care.
Realizing how brave and vulnerable your partner is being in offering repair, I hope you access compassion and gratitude for the love they are showing you. I hope you return it in kind, by lovingly accepting their apology and working together to prevent repeated mistakes.
Following a successful repair, it is your turn to check in on your partner and then take responsibility for any part you played in the challenge above. Almost all fights or struggles within your relationship are created by both of you, so looking at what you may have contributed to the process will create the greatest chance of preventing a repeat of the process.
This is only a beginning discussion of repair, which is a complex and critical skill set in a relationship. In learning to safely admit the many mistakes we make, we create the safety and support necessary to co-create the relationship of our dreams.
To learn more, receive support, and have the opportunity to playfully learn this in practice, join my next (and last of this cycle!) classes Next Wednesday, April 6, from 7-8:15 PST. Email me at email@example.com to get a seat!