Monday, July 30, 2012

"I'm Sorry"

As I've said before, I'm a Catholic Answers Live radio show podcast junkie.  I can't get enough of that show!  If you've never listened before, consider tuning in.  Even though I was born and raised Catholic and went to 12 years of Catholic school, I still learn something new every time I listen.  You need Catholic Answers Live in your life!

The podcast I listened to the other day was called "Marriage: Small Steps, Big Rewards" with guest Dr. Ray Guarendi.  The show riffed off of Dr. Ray's latest book Marriage: Small Steps, Big Rewards.  I haven't read it, but I'm adding it to my "To Read" list after listening to the show!  Amazon sums up the book like this:
This book offers straightforward advice from Dr. Ray that requires no grand alterations in lifestyle, no fancy communication strategies, and no psychobabble. Each chapters offers: one simple step to a better marriage; resistance rationales -- common excuses for disregarding that step; scenarios for each step illustrating the real-life dynamics of a marriage interspersed with commentary from a therapist's viewpoint; and a final word about the step under consideration. Offers simple strategies to get you to your goal: a happier, more rewarding marriage.  
Caller Tells Dr. Ray His Wife Won't Accept His Apologies

Dr. Ray took a call from a guest who was fed up with his wife not accepting his apologies.  The caller said, "When apologies get turned around, it's like, 'Don't tell me you're sorry.  Show me you're going to act differently.'  Apologies start to be rejected and not even accepted.  How do you get through that one, because that's a barrier that I'm working to try and work through."

Having attended a talk by Dr. Ray and having listened to his radio show, I knew he'd give an honest (and perhaps biting) answer, but his blunt delivery always catches me off guard.  Without hesitating, he offered keen insight into what's really bothering the husband about the scenario and what's keeping his wife from accepting his apologies or saying she's sorry.

2 Suggestions from Dr. Ray

1.  "One will probably blow up in your face, but it's probably the more accurate comeback, which is, 'Honey, I hope the priest doesn't tell you that every time you go to confession.'  Okay?  That one could get you stabbed.  I suggest you don't do that unless she's in a really, really, really good mood, and you're somewhere, probably in the next state, calling her."

When a comment like that takes your breath away, you know it's true.  We walk into the confessional and we expect the unquestioning forgiveness of God so long as we give a sincere apology.  Yet, how often are we willing to extend this same model of forgiveness to others the moment they ask for it?

2.  "Now, the second thing I would say is, two things.  You look and you say, 'You're absolutely right.  It is easier for me to say 'I'm sorry' than to change my behavior.  However, I can commit to you that I am trying to change my behavior, and it's an inch by inch process.'  You ever notice, there's an old saying when I was in the Evangelical world that we want justice for everybody else and mercy for ourselves.  You ever notice I'm not going to give you much tolerance when you say you're sorry because I noticed you haven't changed quick enough.  I would say to her, I'd say something like, 'I commit to you I'm going to change,' and then the other thing you've got to do, most people shut down after they say 'I'm sorry' two or three times and it doesn't work for whatever the reason, they stop doing it.  No, I think you've got to keep doing it anyway, to more or less say 'I'm sorry, I regret what I did, and I will try to do better,' but I can't flip a switch and all of a sudden become a saint.

"I always tell people, unless you're living with Satan or Satan's sister, when you apologize to somebody, it
does soften them over time.  Initially, they react with vehemence, vile, whatever, but you really gotta be hardcore to keep throwing 'I'm sorry' back at somebody."

I had to keep rewinding this part of the podcast to hear these words again.  Again, I knew I was listening to truth.  It's so tempting to stop asking for forgiveness when apologies keep getting thrown back in your face.  It's equally tempting to stop offering forgiveness when someone asks forgiveness for the same thing over, and over, and over, and over again.  We seem to equate the words 'I'm sorry' with an immediate promise of change in behavior.  We take for granted that it's going to take the person seeking forgiveness several attempts (or even a lifetime) to overcome what they're asking your forgiveness for. 

When Catholic Answers host, Patrick Coffin, asked the caller if Dr. Ray's two tips were helpful, the caller said that they were, but that it doesn't make it any easier to have his apologies thrown back in his face or not accepted when they are offered sincerely.  I love what Dr. Ray had to say next.

"Keeping 'I'm Sorry' Score"

"Don't keep 'I'm sorry' score.  If you say to yourself, 'Man, in this marriage, I offer 96% of the apologies.  Every once in awhile I'd like to hear one!'  The only thing I can say about that, and I'll tell you this, and you keep this under your hat, and do not say this to your wife because I don't know if it's true.  One of the prime reasons people don't say 'I'm sorry' is insecurity.  They are afraid of what it means.  'I'm inept.  I'm inadequate.  I'm a sinner.  I'm nasty.'  They can't.  More secure people can say 'I'm sorry' more easily than insecure people.  That's just a rule of life." 

Of course!  It takes a secure person in a secure marriage to be able to: (1) admit that they did something wrong, and (2) to ask for the other person's forgiveness.  If they don't feel that the relationship is secure enough for their spouse to either (1) hear their fault or (2) be willing enough to extend forgiveness, they aren't even going to ask for it.    

Making Small Steps (With Big Rewards) in Our Marriage

Before the days of babies and Philip's residency, we took time for granted.  When conflict arose, we had the "luxury" (if you can call it that) of holding grudges for an entire evening, not speaking to each other during dinner, or going to sleep still upset with each other.  When our sweet babies and Philip's demanding schedule as a resident entered the picture, our time together became so limited that we had to learn how to move through conflict much faster.  It's tough to give the silent treatment when you're feeding two little ones or are getting them ready for bed. 

An hour into an argument last fall, Philip and I were both tired of fighting.  Bedtime was approaching, we were both exhausted, and we just wanted to spend time together.  After a long week of Philip's grueling schedule and in the midst of adjusting to two children under two, I remember saying, "I know we're still upset with each other, and nothing you or I say will change that.  So, can we just summarize how the other person is feeling, have them correct us if we're wrong, and ask how we can fix it for the future?" 

It was one of those lightbulb moments for us.  Ah, yes!  Rather than duke it out for hours on end, why don't we just figure out what the underlying feelings are that keep fueling the fire?  So, that means a little introspection and empathy for both of us.  We have to try to figure out what's really upsetting us and be willing to accept the other person's feelings.  Period.

Dr. Ray spoke to this later in the program.  When a caller said they didn't always feel the need to apologize, Dr. Ray told them, "Remember that you are apologizing for your proportion of the problem--even if it's just 1%.  Don't wait for the other person to apologize first.  Identify your role in the problem, and initiate asking for forgiveness."

Unsurprisingly, when I asked Philip what he thinks helps us to move faster through conflict, he agrees with Dr. Ray that taking accountability is key.  Philip says, "It's helpful if both people are willing to say they're sorry because usually both people contributed to the problem.  Even if you don't feel like you're wrong, saying you're sorry doesn't mean that you're wrong, but that the way you approached making your point might have been the issue rather than what you were saying.  Saying 'I'm sorry' doesn't mean 'I was wrong.'"

He had this to add:  "Show the other person that you understand where they are coming from and show them that you understand their reaction.  Keeping the focus on their feelings and not just on the problem helps you both to move on.

When you get to a standstill, focus on understanding where the other person is coming from rather than trying to make them understand your point of view.  That helps us to move on faster and spend more time together." 

I wish I could say that Philip and I have become conflict resolution experts, but we're getting better and better.  Like developing any habit, it takes a lot of practice to fight fairly with your spouse.  Since discovering our new strategy, most times we are able to work through conflict and be hugging within a few minutes.  Knowing that your spouse loves you enough to validate your feelings and say they are sorry, even if you are responsible for 99.9% of the problem, removes any temptation from holding a grudge or withholding forgiveness.

"The Happiest Toddler" to "The Happiest Couple"

As I've mentioned in previous posts, I'm a big fan of Dr. Harvey Karp and his book, The Happiest Toddler on the Block.  To help a toddler to move through a tantrum, Dr. Karp introduces what he calls the "Fast Food Rule" (FFR).  The gist is this:  Fast food restaurants are successful because the person who is hungriest talks first.  Only after the order is placed, the cashier repeats back the order to make sure they heard it correctly. 

Dr. Karp adopts this business model to how we can move through tantrums with toddlers: 
  • The person who is most upset talks first.  The other person listens and repeats back what they're told.  Only then do they take their turn to talk.
    • When it's their turn:
      • be physical (give a hug, put a hand on their shoulder, sit quietly together)
      • whisper
      • give options
      • explain your point of view--briefly
      • teach how to express feelings
      • talk about how emotions feel, physically
      • grant your child a fantasy
      • give a "You-I" message
  • Find the person's "sweet spot" by remembering what you say to the upset person isn't nearly as important as how you say it.  Mirror back about one-third of their emotional intensity in your tone, facial expression, and gestures.  You return to a more normal way of talking as they calm.
  • Use the FFR instead of words that hurt, compare, distract, and rush to squelch feelings.  
Philip and I learned very quickly that we could apply the FFR to our marriage to help us move through conflict faster.  When the more upset person has a chance to talk first, the listener sums up what they said, the listener offers a hug, and the listener remembers to find the "sweet spot" by using the right tone, we move through conflict much faster.  When we keep in mind that the goal is helping the more upset person to feel understood rather than making a point or "winning," there's no need to hold on to grudges.

When we know that the other person loves us enough to fight fairly, it's easier to say "I'm sorry" and move on so that we can spend the limited time we have together enjoying one another's company.  It's much more fun to apologize, hug, and move on together than fighting the night away!         


  1. Very inspiring and honest post. One of my favorites! Thank you for approaching this issue!

  2. Thanks, Nicole! I don't know how I missed this comment until now. It's a blessing to know that sharing our experience through residency is somehow helping others. That, and I mostly stole the thoughts of others on this post. :)