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Waiting For An Apology? Don't Hold Your Breath

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If you're married to an entrenched non-apologizer, it won't help to doggedly demand one. Some folks lack the self-esteem required to take responsibility for their less than honorable behaviors, feel remorse, and offer a heartfelt apology. And many people are so hard on themselves for the mistakes they make, they don't have the emotional room to admit vulnerability and apologize to a partner.

Instead of insisting that your partner damn well better say he's sorry before you'll ever speak to him again, consider how you might be contributing to the problem. For example, if you're overly critical and you over-talk your complaints (as we automatically tend to do in marriage) it will be harder for your partner to apologize. He may feel that admitting error and wrongdoing will open the floodgates and make him vulnerable to hearing your accusations till what feels like the end of time. No one can apologize freely in a relationship where they feel more criticized than valued.

Nor are you likely to get an apology if you exaggerate the offense, even a wee bit. If your husband came home late from work three times in the past two weeks, he won't apologize if you tell him he was late five times. Instead, he'll focus on the exaggeration and distortion. And if you attack his character ("I just can't count on you. You never consider my feelings") you will have lost him. People can apologize for what they do. They cannot apologize for who they are.

To sum it up: focus on your partner's behavior, stick to the facts, and don't overstate your case. As one man in therapy told me, "When my wife criticizes me, I don't want to apologize because I feel like I'm putting my head on the chopping block. It's like I'm agreeing with her that I'm the whole problem. And that's not true."

I'm a good example of wanting to apologize only for my precise share of a problem--as I calculate it, of course--and I expect my husband Steve to apologize for his share, also as I calculate it. Since we're not always of one mind on the math, it can lead to the theater of the absurd.

"I apologize for my part of the fight," I announce to Steve. I have appeared at his office door to make reparations. We just had a stupid argument, and I can tell Steve won't talk to me until I apologize.

"And what do you think your part is?" he asks testily.

"Forty percent," I say. True, I started it with an uncalled-for critical comment, but he was reactive and blew things out of proportion. I thus concluded that his reactivity was worse than my initial rudeness.

"Well," Steve retorts. "That's not good enough."

Round and round we go, sounding like idiots even to ourselves. Luckily on our more mature days we cut through the nonproductive "whodunit" or "who started it" mentality. One or both of us may say, "I apologize for my part in what's going on." And we let it go.

Request an apology when you believe you deserve one, but don't get in a tug of war about it. Instead, be a role model and tender a genuine apology yourself when an apology is due. Your willingness to apologize can be contagious and models maturity for your partner. Also, your non-apologizing partner may use a nonverbal way to reconnect after a fight, defuse the tension, or show you he's in a new place and wants to repair a disconnection. Accept the olive branch however it's offered.