We all make mistakes, we all screw up, and we all do and say things that hurt people. If you also like to be right (and admitting a mistake or a wrongdoing is hard for you), than this might be for you. (And you are in such good company.) The Gottmans, from their invaluable research with thousands of couples in long-term happy, thriving relationships, show us that one of the important skills happy couples have is the skill of admitting mistakes and being accountable around them — what the Gottmans call “accepting influence.” Accepting influence means understanding the influence your action or behavior has had on your partner. Since it’s often hard to completely do that, the Gottmans define it as “expressing agreement with at least part of what your partner is asking for” on something. This post focuses on accepting influence on hurtful screw ups, not just simple mistakes. So here are some things that could help people make a wrong not completely right, but better. Given everyone is different and there is no set way of doing things.
1. Find a good time.
Don’t assume just because you are ready to talk, that they are too.
example: “Hi. I know you might still be mad at me. I’d like to apologize. Would that be ok now, or would you prefer later?”
2. When they are ready, humbly acknowledge your mistake/error/wrongdoing.
To do this well, don’t diffuse your apology with an explanation of why you did it. Even if you do have a good reason, the timing is not right to say it yet. However later might be.
example: “I am terribly sorry that I said that horrendous thing.” And then: Stop talking. Let it land.
3. Acknowledge the impact you might have had on the other person.
To do this well, you don’t actually have to be right, but you do have to try putting yourself in their shoes. Dig deep. Really try. Imagine that something they care about immensely was at stake for them. What might it be? How might you have hurt them? A lot of times, people are angry or hurt because something is really quite important to them that feels jeopardized.
example: “I imagine you got extremely hurt. You might have thought I’d given up on this relationship, that I didn’t love you anymore & didn’t care about you at all. I’m so sorry. I love you so much. I never want to say anything like that to you.”
4. Don’t expect them to be done with it right then and there.
There’s a chance they might not be ready to forgive you. Let them be in their process of being upset. These things can take time.
example: “If you are still mad at me, it makes sense. I was such a jack ass.”
When you screw up (again & again & again), focusing on learning how to accept influence better gives you something to improve, to practice, and something you have control over. If the four steps above aren’t your style, as long as you simply agree with a part of what your partner’s upset about, that could go a long way. I’ll keep screwing up, learning, and practicing with you.