Did your parents ever make you apologize to a sibling? Mine did. My first attempt at expressing remorse usually fell flat. So Mom and Dad made me repeat the performance. It took me a few tries before the apology was believable. By believable I mean that I was able to convince my parents the apology was sincere, but in reality, it wasn't. Despite my parents' best efforts, I went into marriage struggling with apologies. And I have a suspicion you did, too.
For example, have you ever offered your spouse one of these apologies?
- "I'm sorry you feel that way."
- "If I offended you, I'm sorry."
- "I'm sorry you took it that way."
- "I'm sorry I said it that way."
This list makes me cringe. Why? Because the apologies lack personal responsibility and point the finger of blame at the other person.
Why your one-liners only make the situation worse
"I'm sorry you feel that way" is another way of saying, "You shouldn't feel that way." It's one of the world's worst apologies. You never need to apologize for another person's feelings because you're not responsible for them. You and I are responsible for our words and actions.
"If I offended you, I'm sorry" is another way of saying, "You shouldn't have been offended by that" or "You're too sensitive." Sometimes my joking can offend my wife. It better serves my marriage to apologize rather than saying, "I was just kidding. Don't take it so seriously."
"I'm sorry you took it that way" is another way of saying, "That's not what I intended." What your spouse hears is more important than what you say. To honor your spouse, validate his or her feelings on the front end of the apology: "I understand how you heard that. Please forgive my choice of words."
"I'm sorry I said it that way" is another way of saying, "What I said was right, I just said it in the wrong way" or "What I told you was truth and you needed to hear it, but maybe my tone wasn't right." If probably and maybe are ever in your apology, it's not a good apology. "Well, I probably could have said it better." No, you could have said it better. My approach, tone and body language get me in way more trouble than my opinion or thoughts on an issue do.
The best apologies start with, "I'm sorry I said ________," and "I'm sorry I did ________." When you apologize for what you say and do, you are taking personal responsibility and saying to your spouse, "Your feelings matter." Bottom line: "You matter."
Forgiveness should happen quickly
A thriving marriage requires two spouses who are good at giving and receiving apologies. Ruth Bell Graham is known for saying, "A good marriage only exists when you have two good forgivers." A great marriage requires a husband and wife who are quick to apologize and to forgive. I know what you might be thinking,
- I need time to process.
- My heart is wounded, and I don't know how long it will take to heal.
- I can't rush forgiveness.
I understand that sentiment, but challenge the belief.
For the first half of our marriage, Amy and I had something called the QMR (Quarterly Marriage Realignment). We let things go and didn't apologize to each other for minor offenses. We swept our offenses under the rug and hoped they would go away. The problem is that they didn't go away; emotional tension built up. Then, like a volcano, the pressure became too much. Amy and I could go only about three months before eruption.
Every couple is different. Whatever your timeline for marriage realignment — whether it's a month, quarter or year waiting period — there's a better, biblical way.
Jesus calls it the SMQ (Settle Matters Quickly). He spoke these words in the Sermon on the Mount when He said, "Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court" (Matthew 5:25, NIV). Don't let things drag out; deal with them. Amy and I now keep very short accounts in our daily communications. We prioritize 15 to 20 minutes a day to ask about offenses, apologize if necessary and forgive always.
Healing and forgiveness are different processes
Healing may take time, but forgiveness is immediate. Don't withhold forgiveness in an attempt to heal. Forgiveness is a first step toward healing. Forgive and allow God to heal you.
In Ephesians 4, the apostle Paul spells out clearly what we don't want building up inside of us: "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice" (v. 31). Christian or non-Christian would probably say, "Yeah, that shouldn't be a part of our lives. It harms us and destroys relationships."
"Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you" (v. 32). "Forgive and forget" is a piece of conventional wisdom, but Christians are called to forgive by taking it to the Cross. Knowing we are forgiven by God gives us everything we need to forgive each other in marriage. The inability to forgive an apologizing spouse is a source problem, not a spouse problem. If I refuse my spouse’s attempts at seeking forgiveness, that is between me and the Lord, not me and my spouse. I must forgive as a follower of Jesus, because I've been forgiven.
I once heard a pastor encourage a couple to write down all of their offenses on a piece of paper then flush it down the toilet. I appreciate the heart behind the pastor's exhortation but believe there is a much better way. I would encourage the couple to take the offenses and nail them to the Cross; that way the emphasis stays on forgiveness.
When you say or do something that hurts your spouse, apologize for your words and actions. When your spouse apologizes, forgive "as God in Christ forgave you." Repeating these steps in marriage is key to a thriving marriage.Ted Cunningham is the founding pastor of Woodland Hills Family Church in Branson, Missouri. He is the author of Fun Loving You.
How strong is your marriage? Find out today with the Focus on Marriage Assessment. This reliable assessment is based on the research and experience of Focus on the Family's marriage experts Dr. Greg and Erin Smalley. Take this free assessment now.