Do you have a go-to move on the basketball court? Something you save for crunch time, when you really need to shake a defender or score a bucket? Perhaps a crossover dribble at the top of the key or a step-back three-pointer?
Similarly, there’s one action in marriage — one go-to move — that can help you take a giant stride toward strengthening your relationship and restoring intimacy. That go-to move is the apology.
Done well, an apology can bring closure to tensions, conflicts, and hurt feelings that have been sore spots for months or even years. It can change the way your wife thinks of you — the way she looks at you. It can break down barriers faster than any other words or actions can.
In my years of counseling and leading seminars for married couples, I’ve discovered that just as there are five languages for love, there are also five languages of apology. In order for an apology to be accepted by your wife, you need to speak the language or languages that best convey your sincerity to her.
Let’s take a look at the five languages of apology.
Language #1: Expressing Regret
Expressing Regret is the emotional aspect of an apology. Regret focuses on what you did (or failed to do) and how it affected the other person. To express regret to your wife is to acknowledge your sense of guilt, shame, and pain about your behavior that hurt her so deeply.
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A simple “I’m sorry” can go a long way toward restoring goodwill after an offense. The absence of the words “I’m sorry” will stand out to some people like a Packers jersey at a Bears home game. That’s why the best strategy is to begin every apology with a sincere “I’m sorry.”
In addition to being sincere, an apology should be specific: “I’m sorry for ______________.” The more details you give, the better you communicate to your wife that you understand the depth of what made her upset.
Under no circumstances should words of apology be followed by the word “but”…
Words of sincere regret also need to stand alone. Under no circumstances should they be followed by the word but (“I’m sorry I said you remind me of my mother . . . but sometimes you push me too far”). Any time you shift blame to your wife, you move from an apology to an attack.
If you want your wife to sense your sincerity, you must learn to speak the apology language of regret. Your recognition of her pain will likely inspire her to forgive you.
Language #2: Accepting Responsibility
Why is it so difficult for some of us to say, “I was wrong”? Often our reluctance to admit wrongdoing is tied to our sense of self-worth. To admit we are wrong is perceived as weakness. So we rationalize. We gloss over what we did and focus on the why. We may admit what we said or did wasn’t necessarily good or right, but we’re quick to point out our behavior was provoked by someone else’s irresponsible actions. We shift responsibility to someone else because we find it difficult to say, “I was wrong.”
That’s a big problem, because for many people, hearing the words “I was wrong” is what communicates to them that an apology is sincere. If you wife falls into that category, she will not accept your apology as genuine if it doesn’t contain words that accept responsibility for your wrong behavior. Understanding this reality can make all the difference in the world when you sincerely wish to apologize.
Language #3: Making Restitution
In the private sphere of marriage, our desire for restitution is almost always based on our need for love. After being hurt deeply, we need the reassurance that the spouse who hurt us still loves us. Harsh words or hurtful actions call love into question.
For some people, Making Restitution is a primary apology language. As far as they’re concerned, “I’m sorry” must always be accompanied by something along the lines of “What can I do to show you that I still love you?” Without this effort at restitution, they will question the sincerity of the apology. They will continue to feel unloved no matter how many times you say, “I was wrong.” Since the heart of restitution is reassuring your wife that you genuinely love her, it’s essential to express restitution in her primary love language.
For some people, words of affirmation — being told how wonderful or incredible they are in conjunction with the apology — is all the restitution they need.
For some people, gift-giving — something that shows they were being thought of — says “I’m sorry” like nothing else.
For some people, acts of service — vacuuming the floor, washing dishes, doing laundry — prove the sincerity of an apology.
For some people, quality time — giving your undivided attention while you apologize — is restitution enough.
For some people, nothing speaks more deeply of love than physical touch. For them, apology without physical contact is insincere.
Whatever your wife’s love language is, keep this in mind: A genuine apology will be accompanied by a desire to right the wrongs that you’ve committed, to make amends for the damage done, and to assure you wife that you genuinely care about her.
Language #4: Genuine Repentance
“We have the same old arguments about the same old things.” The woman who shared that analysis with me had been married for nearly thirty years. “My husband apologizes. He promises not to do it again. Then he does it again, whether it’s leaving the bathroom light on or being crabby and unpleasant. I don’t want any more apologies. I want him to stop doing the things that bother me — for good.”
This woman wanted her husband to repent.
The word repentance means “to turn around” or “to change one’s mind.” In the context of an apology in your marriage, it means that you realize your present behavior is destructive. You regret the pain you’re causing your wife, and you choose to change your behavior.
Repentance is more than saying, “I’m sorry; I was wrong. How can I make this up to you?” To repent is to say, “I’ll try not to do this again.” For some people, repentance is what convinces them that an apology is sincere.
Without Genuine Repentance, the other languages of apology may fall on deaf ears. What people who have been hurt want to know is, “Do you intend to change, or will this happen again next week?”
How then do we speak the language of Repentance? It begins with an expression of intent to change. When you share your intent to change with your wife, you communicate to her what’s going on inside you. You’re giving her a glimpse into your heart. And often that is enough to convince her that you mean what you say.
Language #5: Requesting Forgiveness
When an offense occurs, it immediately creates a barrier between spouses. Until that barrier is removed, the relationship can’t go forward. An apology is an attempt to remove the barrier. If you discover your wife’s primary language is Requesting Forgiveness, then this is the surest way to remove the barrier.
Asking forgiveness is an admission of guilt. It shows you know you deserve some degree of condemnation or punishment. It shows you are willing to put the future of your relationship in the hands of your wife — the offended person. This takes the control out of your hands, something that’s very difficult for many people to accept.
Asking for forgiveness after you’re expressed an apology using some of the other apology languages often is the key that opens the door to the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation. It may be the one element of your apology your wife is wanting to hear.
The Last Word
The art of apologizing is not easy. It doesn’t come naturally to most people, but it can be learned by all. And it’s worth the effort. Apologizing opens up a whole new world of emotional and spiritual health. Having apologized, we are able to look ourselves in the mirror — and look our wives in the eyes.
Remember, those who sincerely apologize are most likely to be truly forgiven.
The 5 Love Languages for Men: Tools for Making a Good Relationship Great, ©2015 by Gary Chapman with Randy Southern. Used with the permission of Moody Publishers. www.5lovelanguages.com