Should You Always Apologize for Words That Hurt Your Spouse’s Feelings?

a woman cries on her husband's chest
Yuri Arcurs/
Many spouses refuse to accept responsibility for hurtful words. But when those words create emotional barriers, it's difficult to communicate.

Dr. Gary Chapman, author of The Five Love Languages, tells of the time he learned that hurtful words can harm a relationship and shares why it’s so important to listen to what your spouse is really trying to express.

It started when Dr. Chapman returned from a business trip and learned his wife had completed a small home improvement project. She proudly showed her work and then asked, “How do you like it?” His response was a mistake. Rather than looking at the quality of the work or acknowledging her labor of love, Dr. Chapman shrugged it off with a few careless words, “I like it, but to be honest, I liked the old color better.”

His words destroyed weeks of excitement, planning and goodwill. And when he saw the damage his words caused, Dr. Chapman immediately apologized and worked to restore the relationship with his wife.

When he later shared this story at a speaking engagement, a man in the audience asked why Dr. Chapman apologized. “You really liked the former color better. Why should you apologize because she got upset?”

Hurtful words, broken hearts

What is the right answer to the man’s question? Why should you apologize when your spouse takes offense at something you’ve said? “This man’s comments reflect an attitude many husbands have during disagreements with their wife,” Dr. Chapman said. “So, they settle for a fractured marriage, refusing to accept responsibility for careless words or ill-thought actions.”

It’s not just men who offend with their hurtful words. Both spouses share a responsibility to use words that strengthen their marriage and build the other up. Dr. Chapman agrees. “If I hurt my wife, whether intentionally or unintentionally, I should apologize. When my behavior puts an emotional barrier between my wife and me, it’s my responsibility to try to remove the barrier. Apologizing does not mean that what I did was morally wrong; it means that I am deeply concerned that I have hurt her.”

A gentle approach

Proverbs 15:1 speaks to the power of our words: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” The next time your spouse expresses hurt over something you’ve said, follow Dr. Chapman’s advice for repairing the relationship. “Consider responding with, ‘I sense that something is bothering you, and if I’m the problem, I certainly want to deal with it. I love you.’ ” And then, do something that means even more: “Listen, express understanding and ask for forgiveness.” After all, Dr. Chapman says, “Owning our mistakes is the road to marital intimacy.”

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