Going Deeper Than 'I'm Sorry' -- 4 Keys to Repairing Daily Family Wounds

04/21/2015 09:47 am ET | Updated Jun 21, 2015


I don't know what's more personally heart-wrenching, emotionally exhausting or spiritually straining on a mundane level than feeling unresolved conflict with the ones we love -- feeling within ourselves the continuous presence of hurt, irritation, or triggered reaction in relation to those we are closest to. It's also unbearably painful and stressful to witness our dear family members at war with one another, isn't it?

This, I believe, constitutes the most insidious form of heartbreak.

I've been feeling especially humbled as of late, noticing how quickly and frequently the relational space of my sweet little family can turn into bitter, angry, reeling and wounded energies. There are seasons to everything, and my beautiful children (aged 6.5 and 10) seem to be going through a particularly tumultuous season in their sibling relationship. For all my children's fierce and tender soul-mate love for one another, their deep friendship and obviously mutual adoration, lately they have been triggering and aggravating one another loudly and with alarming volatility.

And so out of personal need I've been contemplating the many necessary ways we must bring repair to our close relationships, often on a daily basis. I believe our capacity to both instigate and receive gestures of repair lives at the beating heart of relational health.

When I consider these last weeks and months, I can easily recall a large handful of poignant incidents wherein I was called to instigate gestures of repair. The apologetic email I wrote my dear mom in January, in humble self-reflection following a challenging conversation we had over the holidays. The fruitful efforts I made to bring my children and their papa into a family counseling session with one of my most beloved, respected elders, in search of deeper peace for our divorced, co-parenting, challenging family dynamics. The conversation I had on a car trip with one of my closest, life-long friends, about something I had been holding onto, an ache of unresolved hurt in my heart, causing a subtle rift in the field of our friendship, over something she had said to me a few weeks back.

Life is intense and messy, sacred and precious and, let's face it, will be over in the blink of an eye. It is so natural to seek repair -- where we have caused harm, and where harm has been caused to us. There is an innate desire for right relationship, for the truth to be spoken, for love to flow, and forgiveness be granted.

And yet it seems so many of us lack the simplest skills in repair. We were simply never taught. I've been shocked, even deeply alarmed as an adult, to notice how challenging it is for so many human beings to simply and truly say "I'm sorry" when we've made a mistake. What's the risk in admitting fault, shortcoming, or failure? What does that mean about us, if we confess we were totally wrong or mistaken? What does it take to first realize, and then speak from genuine, authentic and humbled remorse? What does it require of us to want to take responsibility for our part in a dynamic? And then to make a fresh intention moving forward; one we are willing to act on?

And so, in the absence of these basic skills of repair, sometimes the harm-causing can become so subtle and commonplace in our little homes and relationships -- not only in volatile reactivity, but in the quiet teasing, biting sarcasm, careless looks and passive-aggressive tones of voice -- that we miss the actual harm being done, until painful wedges between our hearts are firmly in place, and deep-rooted disappointment, resentment, distrust and disrespect for one another, as well as nauseating guilt and shame, has grown into full flower.

How do we teach the young ones this invaluable skill of instigating repair? About the true nobility of humility and apology? About the virtue of forgiveness? About the simple gift of listening to one another? How do we teach one another? The only way I know is through courageously and vulnerably leading by direct example, in all my messy, imperfect humanness.

It's so challenging for my mama nerves to live in a field of bickering young humans; to feel called into the role of healing mediator again and again, on top of all the other single-mother household and professional tasks to be juggled.

In my best mothering moments I am patiently breathing through it, and compassionately supporting my children in discovering the necessary communication skills with which to navigate their complex dynamic in mutual respect and kindness. And in my most harried, exhausted, irritated mothering moments I notice their dynamic quickly gets the best of my center, and I lose my own temper into the space, or collapse in sadness, only exacerbating the rapid dis-integration of our sacred familial field.

Saying "I'm sorry" is one of the most common, frequent ways we gesture our intent to repair, right? And apology is definitely a skill I notice parents of diverse sub-cultures hoping to instill in their children. How often have we heard a parent in the grocery store, or on the playground saying firmly to their mis-behaved child: "What do you say to the little boy you just knocked over? You need to say you're sorry."

And yet "I'm sorry" can quickly become rote, trite, or casually obligated words, accompanied by eye-rolling and a tone of insincerity, without a genuine experience of remorse or regret to back them up. In this what is lost is an opportunity to foster in our children (and ourselves!) the invaluable skill of self-reflection, and to humbly take responsibility for the actual harm we have caused, as well as to tell the truth about what triggered us, and what we'd like to do to make up for it.

And so for a while now, I've experienced four main keys to real repair in relationship, deeper than just saying "I'm sorry."

There is an opportunity inside our sincere sorry-ness, when we instinctively know an apology is what's called for, to go deeper in our apologies, by taking responsibility for what it is exactly we are sorry for; to reflect with self-compassion upon what caused us to act in such a way, and then to express what our fresh intention is presently, moving forward, in light of our true apology. Finally it is important to gesture from that intention, to take a step of action towards renewal by listening with full presence to the person we have harmed, about what their experience has been.

A couple weeks ago, following a particularly challenging incident of mutual upset between the kids, I suddenly recognized that we needed some new ways of collectively "repairing," and even possibly preventing the harmful escalation of subtle tensions in our home. Intuitively, I called a meeting in the living room, and gathered candles, smudging herbs, and a box of matches.

For all their post-quarrel grumpiness and red-eyed sadness, my kids were also clearly relieved, curious, and totally willing for this chance to re-set. We then took turns, one by one, lighting our smudge of choice, clearing our own body and energy, and then speaking while lighting our candle.

1) "I'm sorry": speaking our apology and taking responsibility for any harm we caused, any unskillful behavior or meanness.
2) "Tell the truth": honestly and vulnerably self-reflecting about what triggers us.
3) "Name your intention": speaking our needs, prayers and wishes for how we want to live and be treated moving forward; how we want to create and invite change, peace and love with our actions.
4) "To Listen": to truly open to receive the reflections of our loved one; to receive their apology, their self-reflection, and their intention.

The kids spoke so carefully, beautifully, sincerely, and listened to one another as well, breathing deeply and making eye contact with each another.

And then before we blew out the candles, I invited us all to feel what had been spoken, our own prayers as well as one another's, deep in our hearts, and make a wish from that place. My daughter, (10) noticeably softened, said quietly in my direction, "I think we should do this every day, Mom."

At that point we decided to instigate a new family policy, wherein if there is tension, sadness, toxicity or anger building in the space, anyone has the authority to "call a meeting," gather the candles and matches. And everyone can respectfully respond to this call to gather and re-set our intentions.

Finally, our whole lives are a fleeting collection of moment-to-moment choices. How glorious to notice: this very moment is always the only moment we are given to live and respond to life around us.

And because we are human, and have complex relationships and emotional bodies, sometimes, in this only moment, we lose perspective, lose our centers, get triggered and don't respond in the best way we know how. And then, the good news is, grace willing, we are given this next only moment, now, to make a fresh choice: to repair, to apologize, to tell the truth, to acknowledge our mistake and claim a fresh intention moving forward.

A fresh chance to listen to our loved one, to open our hearts to their pain, to stretch into deeper forgiveness and self-forgiveness; a fresh chance to rediscover the graciousness of love. A fresh chance to claim this life as the one we get to live, if we so choose, with authentic generosity, courage and beauty.

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Photo Credit: (Photo of Jesua and her daughter)