How to Apologize to Save Your Relationship During COVID-19
The number of impacts that mandated and ‘strongly encouraged’ social distancing is having on people’s lives right now is unprecedented and immeasurable. Feelings of fear and anxiety, financial strain and uncertainty and indisputable adjustments to daily life are part of the new normal for most.
As a psychologist, how people are coping and handling their emotional distress is at the forefront of my mind. I think of the many couples whose relationship is sustained by having a good degree of space and time away from each other. The many uncertainties paired with forced close quarters likely means an increase in heated conflicts and feelings of disconnection for many couples around the world, and in the daily growing number of States that have enforced a ‘stay home’ order for its citizens.
During a time when we feel most vulnerable, scared and sensitive, we need to be able to be there for each other. But the reality is that finding your way through this adversity has the potential to strengthen your relationship or dismantle it one argument at a time.
In this time of unrest and widespread loss and change, the inherent truth that what matters most is the people we love is ringing true for many. Yet relationships are not easy. As a couples therapist, I regularly witness the many challenges that relationships evoke for people. Though we all share a deep longing for closeness and connection, most of us to some degree have a hard time being truly open and honest with our vulnerable emotions - both with others and ourselves.
On a good day, our culture is emotion-phobic. People are generally limited in their skillset around understanding their emotions and knowing how to be with them and express them in healthy and adaptive ways. Negative or uncomfortable emotions tend to be suppressed, denied or redirected while happiness and positivity are amply promoted.
Many people are realizing just how limited they are in handling the many emotions they're feeling along with this pandemic and are surely struggling to cope. A lack of attunement to our own vulnerable feelings, like fear, grief or helplessness, means we are most likely living in default modes of defense and self-protection, which can only be more likely in the face of living in the COVID-19 era.
Even if we have some awareness of our inner feelings, we tend to give our power over to the fear of opening up and instead we stay quiet. We do anything possible to avoid what feels uncomfortable, awkward or scary.
Without an open dialogue with our loved one about what you’re really feeling, distance is inevitable. This unspoken gap between people can easily become ripe territory for projections and assumptions and, inevitably, misunderstandings. Without room for clear, mindful and heartfelt communication, people tend to fall on common cognitive distortions, like mind reading and jumping to conclusions.
Not knowing how to relate to others in ways that help one cope, receive support and connection and bridge conflict leads to feelings of confusion and isolation, loneliness and disconnection, pain and anguish. Quite simply: suffering.
John Gottman’s research on couples was made famous because he could predict with uncanny accuracy the likelihood that certain couples in his studies would stay together from those who would likely part ways, essentially based on skills. He proposed that conflict itself is not the problem for couples. Conflict is normal, natural and part of all relationships.
Gottman concluded that the ability to repair is paramount in the life force of a relationship. Being able to work through disagreements, misunderstandings and injuries in relationships means the difference between riding through the storms of life and human mishaps and growing stronger or experiencing greater disconnect, pain and ultimately, the death of a relationship.
What we know from another evidenced-based couples therapy approach, Emotion-focused Therapy for Couples is that a common problematic pattern couples struggle with is lack of awareness of or hiding one’s core, vulnerable emotions from their partner. For example, one partner might display a defensive ‘secondary’ anger towards his partner instead of expressing the inner hurt and vulnerability he feels. Maybe he makes blaming accusations instead of expressing his underlying fear of getting hurt or losing her.
Defensive-type emotions often manifest in criticisms or ‘jabs’ to the other, or withdrawing from one’s partner in the ‘silent treatment’, which Gottman refers to as “stonewalling”. Eventually one partner or both might ‘blow up’, escalating the communication into an argument, which, when shrouded in lack of conscious awareness of underlying ‘real feelings’ and defensiveness, tends to reinforce further blame, anger, defensiveness and disconnection.
Escalation, which is painful and unsustainable, is typically followed by a period of withdrawal and silence. A break from each other of one night’s sleep or more and then eventually, after some time, the couple might return to ‘normal’ as if nothing happened. Because pain of disconnection is so great and intolerable, no one really wants to stay there too long. This style of relating can only make an already tense and bad situation, like having nowhere to go but the confines of your home or modest apartment, worse.
The problem is, without true repair and reconciliation in conflicts, inevitably, the issue will re-arise and be re-triggered. Staying in defensive and self-protective modes and without attunement to underlying vulnerable emotions, true repair and intimacy cannot be achieved. The tension will remain and you’ll both be sitting in the living room watching TV in silence joined by a large unacknowledged elephant.
It’s also likely that the intensity of the emotions and reactivity will increase each time, as the frustration of dealing with the same issue is added on like layers of plaster. Feelings of despair and hopelessness at trying to work through the same issue may also show themselves as added pain and suffering. Partners feel unheard, unsupported and misunderstood, and the space between them grows.
This painful dance can be avoided with better communication skills and greater emotional attunement to your own emotions and your partner's.
Most people didn’t learn how to repair conflicts in their childhoods. They witnessed how their parents handled conflict. Some of them fought intensely in their presence - perhaps instilling fear of conflict. For others, their parents hid their arguing and disagreements from the kids, leaving it a mystery as to how they ‘fixed’ any misunderstandings.
Parents do the best they can with what they know. You can’t show what you don’t know yourself. And so the ineffectual level of communication and repair skills is transmitted from one generation to the next.
The crux of a repair is the apology. Most people lack the skills in knowing how to do it. It’s hard. It means taking responsibility. It's uncomfortable, which generally means it’s often done swiftly, glibly, and sometimes quietly, resulting in its translation as insincere to the other person. If it’s not felt by the other, it’s not effective or reparative.
Learning how to apologize can be a game changer for a couple. During a time when people feel helpless and a deep lack of control, learning how to apologize and become a better partner is a useful and beneficial thing to do. Knowing how to bridge misunderstandings and disconnection and repair the ruptures that only add to your stress right now will strengthen the intimacy and connection you experience in your significant relationship. If you
How to apologize in a way that bridges disconnection and brings you closer:
1. Look your partner in the eyes (at least some of the time, building up to eventually all of the time).
The eyes are considered ‘the windows of the soul’. Something happens when we look someone in the eyes and express our feelings that is not quite the same without that nonverbal alignment. As if the eyes locked together is part of the bridge itself.
2. Be specific and name exactly what it is you're apologizing for.
It’s just not enough to say “sorry” and move on. It helps to be specific. What exactly are you sorry for? Being specific shows the person you recognize the injury/wrong doing. You’re not white-washing it over in a blanket word. For example, “When I said/did/didn't... I was wrong”.
3. Express what you think the impact was/is.
To deepen the acknowledgement even further, take a guess at what you think the impact was on the person. For example, ”That must have felt awful...I can see how you would feel rejected/angry/dismissed…etc.” This is an empathic guess. You may not know for sure how they feel, especially if they haven’t told you. Consider how would you feel if the particular injury was done against you? Tell her: "I would feel the same way if that happened to me…”.
4. Say SORRY.
At this point it’s likely that the other person’s defensiveness is down, as you’ve set the stage in steps 1-3 to have their open attention - at least more so. Speak it directly from the heart: “I’m so sorry that I [say what you did or didn’t do …]”.
5. Say what you should have done differently and what you will commit to working on or doing differently going forward.
This step is particularly important for those repetitive issues. The deeper triggers that you know are likely to re-arise. Tell your person what you’re intention is and what you are willing to do to change the dynamic that has caused pain to her. For example: “Starting today I will...”…”I’m committed to… I will catch myself when…”
6. Validate the reaction of the other:
Because of their own issues, the other person might try to minimize the injury. If this is the case, do not let them let you off the hook. Validate their feelings by insisting in your responsibility (E.g, “No, it wasn’t OK”). This may be challenging, as it is tempting to be easily forgiven, but true repair and deep connection comes from clear boundaries, not self-sacrificing people-pleasing behavior. Own what you did and hold accountability. Validate the other’s pain and injury even if she doesn’t!
Or maybe she shows anger with your apology. Now having a ‘window’ with your openness, she may want to ‘really let you have it’. This is called the ‘Double apology’. Just listen and accept it.
She may express doubt, finding it hard to really believe your apology is sincere (again perhaps her own issues of lack of trust or perhaps influenced by demonstrations of lack of apology or awareness on your part in the past). If this is the case, try some of these responses:
"I don't blame you for being angry/skeptical...I would be too if I were you, because…", "I get why you're not saying anything, because it hasn't gone well in the past when you've spoken up and I…”.
Validating another’s feelings is not easy. Especially because our own defensive hardwiring becomes activated. Staying in a righteous blaming mode is easier than feeling regret and seeing our erroneous actions that might have hurt our partner.
Offer compassion to yourself and recognize that it’s normal and human to be reactive. Self-compassion can buffer falling into a self-blame and shame spiral while also preventing your defenses from keeping you blocked from taking responsibility.
Feeling regret can be uncomfortable. Most of us engage in some degree of avoidance of uncomfortable emotions, which can create a barrier to experiencing repair when in conflict with a loved one. Holding yourself without judgment, with mindfulness and compassion, will help you tolerate the unpleasant emotions of regret while staying aware enough to not fall into the fight-flee defensive mode that keeps so many couples stuck. Owning responsibility takes strength and maturity and it’s the gateway to intimacy, connection and freedom.
Knowing how to do it is a necessary skill that can be learned, practiced and performed in such a way that people need not suffer in drawn out conflict, making an already bad situation worse.
The good news is we can change.
We can learn new ways of relating at any age.
In the days of COVID-19 when it feels as though we have less control over our lives than ever before, exercising choice in what we say, how we express and how we reach out to our partner to repair and connect can be empowering. Exercising our agency in how we relate to our partner can help us cope with the unprecedented stressors of this pandemic that impact us individually and on our relationships.
It helps to practice. Write down what you would like to convey to your spouse before you try. Breathe. Practice mindfulness. Do your best to stay calm and present as speaking from your heart and not your ego (which is the part of self that needs to be right).
Learning how to take responsibility for our imperfectness in relationships has the power to transform not only our microcosmic relationships, but it is the way to ‘get along’ better in our world.
In a world infused with deeply entrenched separation and disrepair, we need these skills now more than ever. Learning how to apologize well to your loved one is a good a place as any to start. It just might be the life-line your relationship needs to stay afloat for the duration of the COVID-19 quarantine.