A True Apology l November-December 2014

Who among us doesn’t sometimes say the wrong thing or act in a way that triggers — even accidentally — a spouse’s hurt feelings? And who among us, after a misstep, doesn’t want to be forgiven? We want our partner to move on without harboring ill will. Research has found that an authentic apology increases the likelihood of being forgiven, and reduces feelings of anger in the “injured” spouse. It seems that we’re viewed as a more valuable partner through our acts of apology, and our injured spouse feels less risk of being hurt again if we apologize.1

But a proper apology can be a tricky thing. Many of us say, “I’m sorry if you felt badly” or “I’m sorry if I upset you.” Why the “if”? The “if” conveys that we’re not sure we believe that our partner’s feelings are really hurt. Or the “if” conveys that we’re not sure we did anything wrong. Apologies with an “if” usually leave an injured spouse feeling dissatisfied or disappointed.

“I’m sorry that you feel this way” is another common expression that doesn’t cut it as an authentic apology. In this wording, too, there’s no acknowledgement that we did< anything wrong, which is precisely what an injured spouse wants to hear.

A true apology begins with three words: either "I'm sorry I …" or “I apologize for …” A true apology acknowledges that something I said, or something I did, was insensitive or unkind or triggered hurt, fear, embarrassment or humiliation. (The fact that the outcome — our partner’s distress — may have been unintentional on our part doesn’t preclude the need for an apology.)

Here are some well-phrased apologies:

  • "I'm sorry I spoke in a hurtful way."
  • “I apologize for shouting and frightening you.”
  • “I’m sorry I broke our agreement.”
  • “I apologize for losing my patience.”
  • “I’m sorry I rolled my eyes in the way you dislike.”

Without the three words — “I’m sorry I …” or “I apologize for …” — an apology is unlikely to promote the kind of forgiveness that heals emotional wounds and helps partners move past those tough moments all couples encounter.


1McCullough, Michael E. et al. "Conciliatory gestures promote human forgiveness and reduce anger in humans." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Volume 111 Number 30, pages 11211-11216.

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Childhood Sexual Abuse l September/October 2014

What trips up couples? Poor communication, overworked spouses, the stress of raising children, financial pressures — these are what typically come to mind. But one culprit often goes unmentioned: a partner’s history of childhood sexual abuse. Some studies estimate that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 20 men have been subjected to sexual abuse as youngsters.

Despite the passage of time, the impact of early abuse on a couple’s satisfaction — especially on emotional and physical closeness — can be profound.

Complicating matters is the fact that some partners have little to no memory of early abuse, and those that do remember don’t always realize that it may be an obstacle in their way.

Here’s how it works: Unwanted physical or sexual contact during childhood almost always becomes associated with fear and upset and shame. It’s a linkage that lives deep inside, so that during moments of emotional or sexual intimacy with an adult partner, the original feelings — fear, upset, shame — become triggered. It’s why spouses with an abuse history often resist closeness, feeling unsafe, unsettled, guilty or ashamed when invited into intimacy.

Some signs that hint at the possibility of early sexual abuse include:

  • Shutting oneself off from any kind of closeness
  • Feeling unsafe within a relationship, particularly within the sexual dimension of the relationship
  • Harboring negative attitudes and/or feelings toward sex
  • Experiencing discomfort or pain upon being touched
  • Resisting the stirring of sexual desire
  • Fearing loss of control during sex
  • Experiencing thoughts or images of sexual abuse during sex
  • Feeling drawn to sexuality that has a compulsive or risky dimension (such as a fascination with pornography depicting abusive behavior)
  • Seeking physical distance after engaging in sex

These signs can be associated with other psychological challenges and don’t necessarily reflect early sexual abuse. But when blending love and sex becomes a source of pain and anxiety, it’s worth investigating whether sexual abuse might be the stumbling block. Counselors skilled in this area can help loving couples get past the barriers to the joy and satisfaction that emotional and physical closeness can bring.

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Too Busy l July/August 2014

How busy do you keep yourself? Very busy? Crazy busy? Insanely busy? Nowadays we’re almost always busy. We boast about it as a point of pride — so much achievement and productivity!

What’s not keeping us busy is personal reflection — sitting quietly and thinking about our lives: following our train of thoughts and feeling our feelings. And without such reflection, our primary relationship can really suffer.

If we don’t take the time to notice what we’re feeling — our authentic emotions — it’s easy to overlook relationship red flags. For instance, if we’re too busy to notice that lately we’re feeling lonely — owing perhaps to a spouse’s travel schedule or late nights glued to the home computer — we’re unlikely to talk about our loneliness, and therefore unlikely to make needed course corrections (before the relationship hits the skids). Or if we’re too busy to notice creeping levels of irritation — stemming perhaps from a series of broken agreements, or habits that continue to dismay — we’re unlikely to talk about what’s bothering us, and therefore not make helpful course corrections.

It’s not just overlooking the downside that we risk in our lifestyle of busyness. If we’re too busy to notice feelings of gratitude and admiration for what our spouse contributes, we’re unlikely to express those feelings, missing an opportunity to promote good will and deepen mutual respect.

There’s so much we miss when we’re too busy to notice our inner lives. Often our busyness results from allowing work to infiltrate every nook and cranny of our days. At other times it’s a kind of addiction to external stimulation: checking email, surfing the Web, reading and responding to texts. We’ve succumbed to the illusion that it’s better to do something than to do nothing, and thinking or feeling seems like doing nothing.1 How wrong we are about that! Thinking and feeling is doing something valuable, especially for the welfare of our marriage: it leads to connecting with our authentic selves, and in those moments finding answers to the question: How am I experiencing my relationship lately?

We’ve heard it countless times: successful marriage takes work. Let’s not be so busy with everything else that we make no time to notice the thoughts and feelings associated with the relationship that matters most.

1Wilson, Timothy D., et al. “Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind.” Science. July 4, 2014:Vol. 345 no. 6192 pp. 75-77.


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