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  • Dr. Gil Stieglitz

Eight Habits of Great Marriages - Be Generous with Apologies


We are on habit six of our series on eight fundamental habits in great marriages (which tend not to be present in bad ones). Last week, we covered #5, which was about making intimacy in marriage a top priority. If you missed it, click HERE. This week, we continue with habit #6 for great marriages.

Habit #6 is this: Be generous with your apologies.

One action that is needed in every marriage is the apology. Apologies can be simple and they can be complex. They can be over in a few seconds or take, even years to fully work themselves out. If you are going to have a good marriage, there will need to be a lot of apologizing taking place, so get used to saying, “I’m sorry,” “I apologize,” “I shouldn’t have done that,” or “Please forgive me.” One thing about apologies is that they are always helpful and can repair a relationship even when you haven’t done anything wrong.

I have met with hundreds of couples who have never admitted that they did anything wrong in their marriage. They just expect their spouse to suck up the hurt, the pain, and the disrespect. These couples always become cold to one another and wary of the next barb that will fly from the person’s mouth or actions. Without apologies, there is no clearing away of the hurts that occur in every relationship. What if we never cleaned up our dishes after lunch or dinner? There would be piles of uneaten food and bugs crawling all over our kitchens. This is what a marriage without apology is like.

I want you to turn to your spouse and say one of the following phrases,

  • “I am sorry for ________. Would you please forgive me?”

  • “I need to apologize for the way I acted earlier; you didn’t deserve that.”

  • “I realize that I hurt you with what I did and what I said, and that was wrong.”

  • “Would you please forgive me and let me help repair our relationship?”

  • “I don’t want to hurt you but I know I have; would you help me understand how I have hurt you so that I can get better and our marriage can get better?

Sometimes you need a longer or deeper apology process to deal with the big stuff that comes up in a marriage. I was mentored to understand a short and a long process for effective apologies. If the short one does not work, then I settle into the longer one in the interest of repairing the relationship. Let me teach you this system.

Gentle in Spirit

To apologize to someone in a genuine manner, you must be gentle so that they can talk with you about their pain and believe that you are receiving their words. Proverbs 15:1 says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath and a harsh word stirs up strife.” I have found that many men have to almost whisper to be gentle enough to really begin the apology process in a way that their wives can participate. This cannot be done on the fly as though it doesn’t matter. I have found that I need to calm myself and be prepared to hear how I have messed up in more accurate terms than I am thinking. I have to be gentle and stay calm.

Seek Education

It is true that we don’t really understand how our words, actions, attitudes, and omissions really damage the other person. So, take the time to ask your spouse how you have hurt them, because you want to understand what you did so you won’t hurt them like that again. You are seeking education about what you did to cause the hurt. This is painful to hear but it essential if the other person is going to forgive you later. You must understand your part from their point of view. The Bible calls this a rebuke. The proverbs say, “A rebuke goes deeper into a wise man than a hundred blows into a fool.” This part of an apology can take up to forty-five minutes to an hour and is the hardest part. The other person may need to let you know how much it hurt when you did what you did, or when you forgot to do what you forgot. They are seeing your offense from a completely different perspective and you need to see it from their point of view.

Admit You Were Wrong. Period.

One of the most important things to say in an apology is that you were wrong-“I was wrong.” Relationships need both people to admit that they have been wrong at times. Practice saying that you were wrong. Don’t cop out and say that you may have been mistaken. Say you are wrong. It is a big step for some people, but it will do a lot of wonderful things in a relationship when both parties can admit that they have been wrong. “I was wrong when I pushed you to try that new activity.” “I was wrong when I embarrassed you in front of your friends.” “I was wrong when I got angry at you even though I wasn’t mad at you at all.” “I was wrong when I reacted to what you were saying without even listening all the way through to what you were talking about.” “I was wrong when I walked away without letting you speak.” “I was wrong when I told the kids that you were wrong with what you wanted them to do.” “I was wrong when I signed you up to help with the school outing without even asking you.” “I was wrong to spend the money without checking with you.” “I was wrong when I Facebooked with my old boyfriend/girlfriend from high school.” “I was wrong when I spent a bunch of money on clothes without talking with you first.” “I was wrong to look at the pornography.” “I was wrong to steal the money from the company.” “I was wrong to not call you when I was going to be late.” “I was wrong to spend more time with my friends this weekend than with you.”

Ask for Forgiveness

After admitting that you were wrong, it is very helpful to ask if the person to forgive you. Wait for their response as this will tell you if they believe you are really sorry for what you did or didn’t do. If they say, “Yes, I forgive you,” then you are back to normal. If they can’t say that they forgive you, then there is more work to do. It may be that they don’t think you are calm enough to really understand what you did (go back to being gentler). It could be that they don’t think you really want to know what hurt them so much (go back to asking them to educate you). It may be that they don’t believe that you really understand that you are wrong (go back to your admission of wrong). It could be that they don’t think you are ready to be forgiven or they are not ready to forgive you at this point (move on to a repentance plan).

Talk through a Repentance Plan

A repentance plan is an agreement of what you will do or what they get to do to you if you do this offense again. I have seen people doing dishes as a part of the repentance plan. I have seen people coming home in the middle of the day to make the bed or close the shower curtain. I have seen people buying gifts for the injured person. The idea is that there must be a way of developing, growing, and even punishing the person for repeated sins in particular areas. John the Baptist tells the Pharisees that came to him for repentance that he wanted to see fruit in keeping with their repentance. These repentance plans are for deeply offensive or repeated behaviors. What if a person has been sober for years but goes back to the bottle? What if a person is very cruel in their sarcasm and it destroys the safety of the home? What if a person repeatedly views pornography? These might be times for lengthy visits away from family. It could be time for a rehab stay. It could be working on an unpleasant project. Be realistic about repentance plans, though-they need to be enough so that the person thinks twice about repeating the offense.

When my children were small, we had a form of this. I would ask them what they did and whether what they did was the right thing or the wrong thing. Eventually, they would come to understand that it was the wrong thing to do. I would ask them what would make them remember to not do this same thing the next time. We would talk about five or so different possibilities that would help them remember. We mutually came to a decision about what would happen if they made the harmful choice again. My wife and I have used this same kind of idea when I offend her repeatedly or she offends me. I have had to work through a couple of repentance plans in our thirty years of marriage. My wife has never had to activate a repentance plan for herself.

I realize that this idea may sound different, but it is important that couples have small and big ways to say, “Please respect me on this, it hurts.” I have watched too many couples who don’t have ways of letting each other know of the little hurts that come in marriage. These just pile up and pile up until one day one of the spouses has just had enough and they leave. It doesn’t have to be this way. Find a way to let your spouse have some corrective power in your life and your relationship will improve.

Test for Openness

The last thing you want to do with a longer version of apology is to test for openness. Are they willing to talk with you or let you touch them? If they will not let you touch them or talk with you about any other subjects, then the issue may not be resolved. We are like flowers and open up to the people around us if we trust them. I find that handling an apology correctly causes the other person to open up to us again or open up a little more than they were before. If you are going to have a great marriage, then you need to have openness to each other.

Let me say this again. You will offend your spouse, so apologize. You will hurt your spouse, so be ready with an admission of your guilt. Your spouse will be offended by things you don’t do and things you do, so practice apologizing to help your marriage survive your blunders. Have the kind of marriage where “I was wrong;” “I apologize;” “I am sorry;” and so forth, are regular phrases that go back and forth between you as a couple. Do not expect that your spouse will be perfect. Do not pretend that you are perfect.

If you are looking for ways to improve your marriage, look at the basic three relational sins:

  • Have I failed to do something that I should have done?

  • Have I done something I shouldn’t have done?

  • Have I harmed my spouse or family in some way?

Almost all of the ways of damaging a relationship are a variation of one of these three. Be willing to listen to your spouse and become more sensitive towards them so that you do not wound, offend, harm, or disrespect them. A great relationship gets better and better as time goes on. It never is perfect and still needs apologies.

Think of things you need to apologize to your spouse for. Does the Holy Spirit bring anything to your mind? Commit today to get right with your spouse and let the apology process become a staple in your marriage. Let us know if we can help you in any way. To schedule an appointment with one of our counselors or coaches, you can reach us at info@ptlb.com.

Join me next week for the seventh habit of great marriages.

Serving Him,

Gil Stieglitz

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Marital Intelligence, subtitled “A foolproof guide for saving and supercharging marriage,” is based on thousands of hours of marital counseling and observation by the author. Stieglitz is a counselor, speaker, mentor, professor, and leadership consultant based in Roseville, Calif. He is currently a professor at Western Seminary, a district superintendent for the Evangelical Free Church of America, and a church consultant for Thriving Churches International. He also directs his own ministry, Principles to Live By. Stieglitz says there are only five problems in marriage: (1) Ignoring needs; (2) Immature behaviors, (3) Clashing temperaments, (4) Competing relationships, and (5) Past baggage. With each issue, he carefully and consistently lays out biblical teaching on the subject, and then includes helpful anecdotes, solutions, and self-tests to help the reader.

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