I've never been able to apologize and I'm not exactly sure where this inability comes from. Was it my defiance as a little girl when adults commanded me, "Say you're sorry!" Was it just my standard technique during arguments? Turn into an ice statue, so that I wouldn't cry? I don't know. All I know is that when my partner and I argued, even when I knew I was wrong, I couldn't bring myself to tell him I was sorry.
Oh, sure, sometimes I said the words. "OK, I'm sorry," I'd snap. Then I'd add, "Is that what you wanted to hear?" or the equally deal-breaking, "What else do you want me to say?" It wasn't a real apology.
Which is not to say that I haven't been on the receiving end of some lame-ass, so-called apologies myself throughout my adult life, usually involving the word "if." "I'm sorry if you're angry …" "If I hurt you, I apologize …" Which really means, If you're upset about something, I'm sorry about that, because now I have to deal with you. Here's another type of non-apology apology: one that's actually a lead-in to a criticism. "I'm sorry, but it was because you were being a total bitch."
So maybe I didn't have the best apologizing role models in previous relationships. But my partner is different. "You're right, I'm sorry," he'd say to me without an ounce of grit in his voice. "I was being selfish" or "I didn't think about how you were feeling." His sincerity, his ability to take responsibility for his mistakes, is actually quite touching. But would I ever be able to follow his lead?
Not at first.
Early on, I still played the ice queen in our arguments, staring at him belligerently instead of engaging in an actual dialog. I was ultra-defensive, unwilling to accept any responsibility. Maybe I believed that to admit accountability was to admit weakness. The little me, trying not to cry. Sometimes my partner and I ended up yelling at each other, which only fueled my combative stance.
Then, one day during an argument, I knew that I was just plain wrong and my partner was right. He didn't yell and instead used one of those tricks they teach you in self-help books or in a therapist's office to express your feelings in a dispassionate manner, which I generally hate.
"I felt really bad when you didn't include me in your plans this weekend," he said as I did dishes at the kitchen sink. "I wanted to spend time together, and you didn't think about me or even talk about it with me first."
True to form, I stared at him belligerently and told him that I was sorry—in my most apathetic, I'm-not-really-sorry-at-all voice. He looked disappointed and walked away into the other room. I finished washing the dishes, and as I scrubbed them, I realized that I was also trying to scrub away the thoughts that were distracting me from what was really going on: my defensiveness, my feelings of being yelled at as a little girl, the fear of opening myself up and being vulnerable. And what I was left with was simply that I had been incredibly inconsiderate and hurt my partner's feelings . It didn't make me a horrible person—it just made me a human being.
When he came back into the kitchen to start getting ready for work, I rushed over to him, took his face in my hands and looked right into his eyes.
"I am so sorry," I said. "I didn't mean to hurt you. But I did, and I am sorry. I promise to be more mindful going forward."
It was a real apology–maybe my first one ever. Now I just had to hope that practice would make—not perfect—just better. My partner was relieved, I could tell. His anger melted away, and he kissed me. And I knew my apology had been accepted.