My wife, Mel, and I were arguing over a cookie. She had been sick with a cold, so while she was taking a nap, I cleaned up around the kitchen. I found the cookie, and thinking it was up for grabs, ate it, only to find out that she’d been saving it for after her nap.
There are a few factors that went into this argument. Mel had been sick for a few days already, and I was starting to get sick. I felt like a wonder dad for letting her nap, which really wasn’t the case. She was sick and needed to get better. But like most of the fights we get into after 12 years of marriage, all of it was pretty ridiculous. We’d had a long week of sick kids, and a sick mom, and ultimately all of that pressure and stress came out over a damn cookie. Which really is stupid, but in the moment, it didn’t seem that way.
Not at all.
It seemed pretty important. I felt picked on, and Mel felt robbed. We went back and forth for a while. We argued about who was being a jerk. Neither of us was willing to take the blame. Both of us felt picked on. And above all, we were both too proud to apologize, so we stayed stuck in this circular argument over a chocolate cookie the size of a silver dollar.
But the reality is, this is what happens in marriage. Two people get stuck arguing over something small and insignificant. They zero in on it and argue about it endlessly, without ever really discussing the actual issue. And it wasn’t until late that night that I finally told her I was sorry. I said it sincerely, and immediately it felt like a balloon deflated and we could finally discuss the real problem, which wasn’t really a problem at all, but just the reality that it’s pretty stressful when family members and kids are all sick at the same time.
But that, ultimately, is the power of an apology. This isn’t to say that you need to apologize for every little thing. And it also doesn’t mean that you should apologize even when you don’t mean it. There is a weight and sincerity to an apology that needs to be genuine. What it does mean is that an apology can truly, and honestly, be the opening of a healthy conversation.
Sometimes when I apologize, it feels like something was knocked loose, and suddenly we can all sit down and talk rationally. I can’t speak for all marriages, but at least in mine, an apology usually leads to more apologies from both people, and eventually brings worthwhile change.
And when I think about that, I often think about my father. He died while divorcing his fourth wife. He spent most of my high school years in jail. Honestly, he was a selfish man, and I can’t remember him ever apologizing to one of his wives. I’m not sure if it was pride or something else, but I just don’t think he was interested in saying he was sorry. So arguments, mistakes, grievances — all of it piled up until the marriage he was in toppled over and ended, and then he moved on to another.
I often tell people that I learned more from my father’s absence than I could from his presence, and in this situation, I learned a lot from what he didn’t say rather than from what he did.
My hope is that my three children will learn how to apologize from watching their parents do it. I don’t want them to learn from what’s not said, like I did.
In fact, I apologize to my kids a lot — particularly my middle daughter, who is often the most likely to fold her arms, look at the ground, and shut down. She’s the most likely to hold a grudge. I can’t count how many times I’ve crouched down, held her by the shoulders, and told her I was sorry for this or that. In moments like those, she always looks up, and we end up talking about what’s really wrong. And at the end, I always explain to her that an apology isn’t necessarily admitting that you are wrong. It’s admitting that you care enough about that person to humble yourself. An apology is like handing out an olive branch. It means that you want to overcome your argument and discuss the real issue, so you can both move forward.
And I think that’s the problem with the words “I’m sorry.” They are associated with admitting fault, and in speaking them, you are accepting blame. But that really isn’t the reason I apologize. I do it to let the tension out of the room. I do it because I love my wife and children, and I am willing to humble myself so we can meet in the middle, find a compromise and, together, become stronger. And therein lies the real power of an apology: It is the way to make sure that the people you love know that you are more invested in the relationship and the love therein than you are in your own pride.
So if you are a person who struggles with apologizing, try to reframe it. Try it the next time you feel like you’re at an impasse. Don’t think about it as admitting fault, but rather admitting that you love the people you are with. It will better your relationship with your partner and your children. I promise.