We accept the belief that forgiveness is a necessary component of a healthy, satisfying relationship. But why don’t apologies always work? Why are offended people sometimes unsatisfied after an apology has been offered? Why are the words “I said I’m sorry. What more do you want?!” so familiar? Because motive makes all the difference. An apology can be filled with all the right words but remain powerless if it is offered for the wrong reason.
An effective apology is motivated by a desire to correct an offense against someone else; to bring resolution to the hurt we’ve caused them. But apologies are too often used as a quick fix for our uneasiness. When we focus more on our own discomfort than on the distress of the other person, our apology is selfish, and selfish apologies are usually ineffective.
Last week, I stayed up late three nights in a row playing video games with my 19-year old daughter. My wife, Sharon, prefers me going to bed the same time she does, but doesn’t begrudge our late night game play. On the fourth night, when I was tired and ready to go to bed at her earlier time, she informed me that she was taking work off the next day and so was hoping we could stay up together for a while. I was already making my exit when this conversation started. Aware of her disappointment, I stood across the room and explained that I was ready for sleep. She looked dejected and hoped I’d change my mind, but I was honestly tired and wanted to go to bed. And so I did. She decided to do the same.
The conversation continued as we sat in bed. Sharon explained her anticipation of spending some casual time with me that night and the hurt of realizing I did not want the same.
“I’m sorry you feel disappointed,” I finally said.
Her response was quick. “I hate it when you apologize for how I feel.”
“Well, I don’t think I did anything wrong. I thought going to bed earlier tonight would actually be a good thing. I didn’t realize your plans had changed. If you think I did anything wrong, we can talk about it. But the fact is, I didn’t intent to hurt you and I’m sorry if you feel that way.” That pretty much ended the conversation and I soon fell asleep.
But the next morning, I woke feeling unsettled. I pictured my wife sitting sadly on the couch the night before and this question immediately came to mind: Whose relief were you most interested in? The answer was obvious to me. Despite the fact that everything I had said in my defense was true, and even though I honestly regretted her sadness, my apology to her was powerless because from the very moment I was aware of her hurt, my responses were primary driven by a desire for my own relief (from tiredness, from feeling guilty, from having to spend too much time trying to comfort her, from potential conflict). In those moments, I had actually been moving away from my wife, not towards her.
If I had been concerned about her relief, not just my own, I would have probably returned to the couch to be close to her while we talked. I would have touched her. I would have assured her that time with her was important to me, too, and maybe suggest protecting our weekend to make sure that would happen. Maybe I would have even suggested watching a 30-minute show we’d both enjoy. The specific solution would not have mattered as much to her as my intention to provide comfort.
Maybe that question is a good one for you to consider when asking for forgiveness. Whose relief are you most interested in? Yours, or theirs? It’s not wrong to want relief for yourself, but the power of your apology will be measured by how much you focus on what the other person needs from you.
By the way, failure never has to be the end of our story. Once I realized the inadequacy of my response, I talked to Sharon about it. I admitted that I had been more focused on my relief that hers. I said I was sorry and wanted to keep figuring out how to love her better. That time, the apology worked.
“If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24)