There is an expression that we use when we make a mistake: “I'm only human.” We're saying that everybody makes mistakes, so what we did is okay. And it is okay, as long as we take personal responsibility for our wrongdoing. Saying “sorry” but not meaning it or not intending to improve our actions will cause a lack of trust to develop. Saying “I'm sorry” and admitting that we did something wrong is the first step to self-improvement. Being unable to apologize is a recipe for a brittle marriage. Saying “I'm sorry” gives a marriage the resiliency to weather both partners' mistakes.
Trent had difficulty taking responsibility for his actions. He had agreed to come home at six o'clock every night, which was very important to his wife, Holly. She worked part-time so that she could be with their infant during the day, and she often needed to leave at six o'clock for night meetings. Trent would occasionally come home on time, but many nights he would be 10, 20, or even 30 minutes late. He always had an excuse about something coming up at work or the bad traffic on the freeway. He never once said, “I'm sorry.” Trent blamed his lateness on external factors instead of taking personal responsibility.
This behavior frustrated Holly to no end. She could never count on him for any of her evening plans. She felt that she had done her fair share by being home with their baby most of the day and that Trent was not living up to his end of the bargain. One day, she let him know how furious she was. Through her tears she said, “You never even say, `I'm sorry,' like somehow it isn't even your fault. It is your fault. You're the one who's late all the time.” Trent took a step back and looked at Holly. At first he wanted to shout back, “Of course, I say I'm sorry,” but then he realized it wasn't true. He was always making excuses. It took a while, but he finally apologized. By doing so, he was taking responsibility for his actions rather than blaming external factors.
In a partnership, your problem is your partner's problem. (And vice versa!) Often, people don't take the time or make the effort to help their mate with difficulties he or she may be experiencing in the outside world. It's important to a strong marriage that couples solve problems together.
Don't spend all your time trying to figure out who is to blame. You have the power to rise above this petty game! Instead, spend that time solving the problem. You will waste less time and accomplish more.
Trent's apology was valuable for many reasons. First, it showed Holly that he cared about her feelings. Second, only after admitting he was wrong could Trent start improving his behavior. And third, Trent and Holly could be a team, rather than acting like they were on opposing sides. The point is that the greater a couple's ability and willingness to say “I'm sorry,” the more balanced, stable, and satisfying the relationship.
Rate Your Ability to Take Responsibility
It can be difficult to admit that you made a mistake. But it's a very important part of a good relationship. Take the time to answer the following questions honestly on a scale ranging from 1 (rarely) to 5 (always).
- If you forget about something you said you would do, how often do you blame somebody else?
- 1 2 3 4 5
- If you are late, do you tend to blame an external circumstance, like bad traffic or bad weather?
- 1 2 3 4 5
- If the car ran out of gas when you were on the way to a movie, would you automatically blame your spouse?
- 1 2 3 4 5
- If you forgot to buy some items on the grocery list, would your first thought be to come up with a good excuse?
- 1 2 3 4 5
- How much do you think it would improve your relationship with your spouse if you took responsibility for your own mistakes (with 1 being “not at all” and 5 being “extremely”)?
- 1 2 3 4 5
Think about your answers. If you found that you might blame someone or something else for your mistakes, consider why that might be. It will be easier for you to take responsibility for your actions if you understand that it's difficult for you.
But I'm Always Right!
Nobody is always right. Nevertheless, it's hard for most of us to admit when we're wrong. Sometimes we know that we did something we shouldn't have, and we feel badly about it. So the mind plays a trick on us. It pretends that we didn't do anything wrong. Then we don't have to feel badly about it, and we don't have to say, “I'm sorry,” because saying “I'm sorry” would mean admitting that we behaved badly.
This logic will make you feel distant from your spouse. There is nothing wrong with making a mistake. But there is something wrong about not admitting it.