Conflict is part of every marriage on this side of heaven. Since fault is almost always on both sides, if we’re going to be humble and have healthy, joyful relationships, we must learn to apologize well!
If we do apologize well, God can strengthen the weak areas of our relationships. This perspective can actually allow us to view tension in our relationships positively!
Apologize Well By Focusing on the Way Your Spouse Feels
In counseling, I frequently use the word “feels,” because:
- It’s not a question of whether a husband thinks he loves his wife. It’s a question of whether his wife feels loved. A husband might insist: “My wife is the supreme relationship in my life. She is more important than anything else.” But the wife might not feel that way. Her perception is her reality.
- It’s not a question of whether a wife thinks she respects her husband. It’s a question of whether her husband feels respected. A wife might insist, “I respect my husband. He works hard to take care of us, and treats the kids and me well.” But the husband might not feel that way. His perception is his reality.
- It’s not a question of whether we think we’re joking. It’s a question of how our actions made other people feel. When I used to teach elementary school (although I’ve seen something similar with adults), students regularly came to me upset about something someone said about them. When I approached the student who made the rude remark, can you imagine how many times I heard, “But I was just joking.”
Make Appropriate Changes
Focus on the way you make your spouse (or anyone for that matter) feel. Then, after learning how your spouse feels, make the appropriate changes to help your spouse feel differently. The poor alternative is trying to talk your husband or wife out of feeling the way he or she feels.
- A husband might ask his wife one of the discussion questions at the end of my posts: “Outside of the Lord Himself, do you feel you are taking second place to anything in my life?” If a wife answers that she does not feel she is the supreme relationship in her husband’s life, the husband should not try to talk her out of the way she feels or persuade her to see things differently.
- Likewise, a wife might ask her husband, “Do you feel I respect you?” If the husband explains how she makes him feel disrespected, the wife should not argue with her husband and try to convince him he is wrong. Instead, each spouse should listen to the other and try to make the appropriate changes.
Similarly, if your husband or wife is hurt by something you have done, do not try to make him or her feel wrong. When hearing your spouse’s thoughts, commit to not interrupting or arguing. If you understand how your spouse feels, then you will learn to treat him or her the way he or she wants to be treated.
Apologize Well By Crucifying Your Flesh
If you ask your spouse or friend tough, honest questions, you are going to hear answers that reveal:
- Your weaknesses
- Hurts you have caused
- Ways you have failed
Your flesh will flare up:
- Romans 8:13—For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
- Galatians 5:24—And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
To prevent your flesh from flaring up and destroying the work God wants to do in your relationship, you must crucify your flesh. Stay on guard against your sinful nature tempting you to get angry. Do not let pride have victories in your marriage! Instead, humble yourself and ask for forgiveness the right way.
Apologies or Excuses?
Some people—whether intentionally or unintentionally—act like they are apologizing, but their “apologies” are simply ways of making excuses and shifting blame. This only serves to increase frustration and hurt. Sincere apologies have the opposite effect—they diffuse aggression and prevent bitterness.
A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up strife.Proverbs 15:1
The Two Words to Avoid
There are not many “softer answers” than apologies made the right way. To do this, make sure you avoid two words: “but” and “you.”
When an “apology” contains the word “but,” it is an excuse disguised as a confession:
- “I’m sorry, BUT if they hadn’t done that…”
- “I am sorry, BUT this happened…”
- “I’m sorry, BUT I never would’ve done this if not for…”
When an “apology” contains this word “you,” it is a manipulative way for people to shift blame, and make the other person feel bad about being hurt or upset:
- “I’m sorry YOU did this…”
- “Well, I’m sorry YOU are mad…”
- “I’m sorry YOU are offended…”
Apologizing the Right Way
This involves two steps:
- Say: “I am sorry for . . .” or “I am sorry I . . .” followed by the offense you committed.
- Say: “Will you please forgive me?”
The second step is important because it:
- Shows you recognize you have done something requiring forgiveness
- Shows you are not minimizing your actions
- Engages the other person and requires a response
The Negative Consequences of Failing to Apologize Well
Apologizing well can diffuse aggression. An insincere apology that shifts blame or makes excuses increases frustration and hurt.
Pursue peace with all people…looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled.Hebrews 12:14-15
Some couples who have been married for a long time have become more like roommates than people in love. Often this is because they have built up years of bitterness between each other. They have hurts toward each other piled on top of other hurts.
Often this is because they let pride and stubbornness prevent them from taking responsibility for their actions. Their marriages have suffered terribly as a result. The solution is to apologize well and ask for forgiveness.
The Importance of Parents Apologizing to Their Children
A good rule for parenting is we should do whatever we want our kids to do. There are exceptions. For example we expect our kids to go to bed earlier than us, but for the most part we must model what we expect.
This includes apologizing! If we want our children to apologize and ask for forgiveness, we need to apologize and ask for forgiveness. I used to teach elementary school and I noticed a general rule:
- Children who accept responsibility for their actions have parents who accept responsibility for their actions
- Children who make excuses often have parents who make excuses
What It Means to Say, “I Forgive You”
Finally, if your spouse asks for forgiveness and you say, “I forgive you,” you are obligated to do your best to forgive the way God forgives. God does not forget our sins, but He does choose not to remember them:
- Isaiah 43:25b—I will not remember your sins.
- Jeremiah 31:34b—I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.
- Hebrews 8:12 and 10:17—Their sins and lawless deeds I will remember no more.
When you say, “I forgive you,” you are committing to do your best to:
- Not remember your spouse’s sin
- Not hold the sin against your spouse
- Refuse to bring up the sin in the future
Although Saul was the king of Israel, a more appropriate title would be the King of Excuses. Do not be like him! Read 1 Samuel 13:1–14 and 15:1–29. What was wrong with Saul’s “apologies”? What excuses did he make? Who did he blame? Provide three examples:
If you’d like to learn more about apologizing well, watch this video Katie and I did together discussing this topic…
Two Testimonies About Apologizing
In the above video I explain my two favorite examples of apologizing:
- 13:00–16:15—A man spent lots of tax payers’ money building sidewalks that didn’t the traffic situation. He would’ve been destroyed by reporters in a press conference, but he humbly acknowledged his fault and asked for forgiveness.
- 16:15–19:35—When I taught elementary school my students lost lots of books. The librarian was (understandably) upset with me. I apologized and asked for her forgiveness and our relationship was restored.
My Personal History with Apologizing
In the video Katie asked me, “Have you always been good at apologizing? Elaborate on your history with it and how you grew in it.”
My first thought was: “If I’ve learned to apologize well, it’s from making so many mistakes.”
As a pastor I’ve had to learn to become comfortable apologizing, because it’s a necessity part of a healthy ministry. I’d go so far as saying don’t become a pastor if you’re not comfortable apologizing. You’re going to:
- Experience considerably more withdrawals than deposits
- Need to apologize for your own actions and the actions of others.
Nothing looks worse for a pastor than shifting blame, even if the blame belongs elsewhere.
As far as when I learned to apologize, I’d have to give credit to Lieutenant Colonel Richard Brewer, who was my commander in Army ROTC. He didn’t teach me to apologize. He forced me to apologize. I couldn’t make excuses, which was painful at the time, but now I’m thankful for the way he treated me.
Working Through the Discussion Questions
NOTE: The following also applies to the questions in the Marriage God’s Way Workbook.
The bottoms of my marriage posts have Discussion Questions for couples. There’s no rush as you work through these with your spouse. Allow time for prayer and reflection. Do not rush answering questions, asking each other questions, or sharing your responses. Consider working through no more than a few questions per day. Also, plan the location and atmosphere when answering the questions:
- Would it be best to do the work over some activity, such as a meal together?
- Could it be helpful to discuss your answers while taking a walk?
- Will you be more consistent if you choose a specific time (and possibly place)?
Pray together when you begin and conclude your times together. Pray specifically for:
- Graciousness and honesty in answering the questions
- Humility in receiving you spouse’s criticisms
When you conclude, pray specifically for:
- Your spouse to be the husband or wife God wants him or her to be
- The Holy Spirit’s help in applying what you have learned and making the appropriate changes
Finally, be sure to thank God for the gospel that equips you to have the healthy, joyful, Christ-centered relationship He desires for you.
- Do you have any other advice for apologizing well?
- Can you share about a time:
- Someone apologized well to you? How did it make you feel?
- You apologize well? How did the other person respond?
- You witnessed someone offend someone else and the other apologized well, or didn’t apologize well?
- How do you see apologizing affecting relationships? What about failing to apologize?