Tricky Tuesday: How to say you’re Sorry so it really hits the spot

 Weekly lesson in how to deliver hard messages

“Sorry” is an easy word to spell. But it’s a meaningless word to say,  unless it’s delivered effectively.

Today’s Tricky Tuesday is about learning how to deliver an effective Sorry after screwing up again and after promising to do better.

The cast of characters

Jack and Shaya are a young couple with their first child on the way. Jack is one of those people who would do anything for his friends. Shaya loves that about him. What she doesn’t love is when he breaks his promises to her, either because he doesn’t want to disappoint his friends, he’s having too much fun, or because he doesn’t want his friends to think he’s being controlled by his wife.

In today’s example, Jack is in the doghouse and won’t get out by offering a quick and sheepish (dogish?) “Sorry.” For any apology to be meaningful, it needs to include real repair which—according to the Gottman Institute—is an essential skill to master if you want to be in healthy relationship.

The situation

Weeks ago, Shaya told him about an award she was receiving and asked him to put the date on his calendar so he could go with her to the awards banquet. The night before the banquet, a buddy called and invited Jack to go fishing the following morning. The plan was to leave the house by 6 AM and be back by noon. This sounded perfect.

Although in theory this plan would work, Shaya was worried. She wanted to say yes, but she knew from experience that once Jack and his buddies started fishing, they had a hard time stopping.

“I don’t mind you going,” she said, “but you have to promise to quit early. I don’t want to be stressed-out before the banquet wondering if you’ll make it home in time.”

“I promise to be back before noon, so you can relax for the rest of the day.”

The next morning, Jack’s friend showed up 45 minutes later than planned. There was still time to go fishing and be back by noon, but Jack knew it would be tight. To keep his promise to be back before noon meant they would have to quit fishing an hour earlier.

But they didn’t quit an hour earlier. They quit 45 minutes earlier and then got caught in road construction. By the time Jack got home, Shaya had already left for the banquet.

Knowing he had blown it, Jack threw on some clothes and had his buddy drop him off at the banquet. As luck would have it, he sat down| moments before Shaya got up to accept her award.

By that time, Shaya wanted nothing to do with him. Not only did Jack break his promise, but he hadn’t showered and looked like he had just wandered in off the street.

The dinner was a disaster and the ride home was worse.

“Do not talk to me,” Shaya said to him. “And just so you know, I don’t ever want to hear your excuse for not being home by noon.”

Okay, so what’s the way back for Jack?

The Solution

There’s nothing Jack can do to erase the facts. He promised he would be home before noon and he wasn’t. Not only did he break his promise by not being home on time. He didn’t call Shaya to say he’d be late so she didn’t worry that he might have drowned or been in an accident. He just showed up at the last possible moment looking like a rumpled mess.

What Jack would like to do is explain to Shaya why he was late: He left in time, but got Shaya about the road construction,

But explaining won’t help.  When you break a promise, it doesn’t matter that you meant well. It doesn’t matter that you were caught in traffic. The only thing that matters is that the other person feels like you understand how your actions hurt them.

For example, if you accidentally run over my dog because it got off its leash, I don’t want to hear a lecture about what a bad dog owner I am for not controlling my dog. What I want is for you to stop your car and run out into the street to see if there’s any way to save him, If there is, I want you to do it, and no matter what happens next, I want to hear how sorry you are and how terrible you feel about my poor dog.

When you break a promise, your reasons don’t matter. What does matter is that the other person feels like you understand how your actions hurt them, and believes that you are going to do whatever you can to repair the damage, as quickly as possible.

The Sorry card was designed to teach you how to apologize effectively, without making excuses, or explaining how or why you did what you did. The only time the other person is going to care why you did something that hurt them is after they believe you understand how your behavior affected them, and that you want to do something to show that you get it.

For example, say you forget to pick up your child because you forgot which day she had soccer. That doesn’t make you a bad parent.  But that little person standing all alone in her blue knee-highs may be scared, or angry, or be feeling like you didn’t love her enough to remember. The point is, an apology is about them, not you. So don’t be quick to explain. Or add a ‘but…’ to your Sorry.

Here is the start of the Sorry card Jack might have written, using the Sorry card from the Express Yourself Ecard app. As you can see, nowhere does he defend or explain his reasons. His first priority is to acknowledge his screw-up and take full responsibility for it. And because it can be sent via email, even if Shaya’s not ready to talk to him, she probably would be curious to read a heartfelt Sorry if it dinged her on her iPhone.express yourself ecardsSorry Express Yourself ECard

 

Ask Betsy: Why do I feel better when I fill out an Express Yourself E-Card?

Why do I feel better when I fill out an Express Yourself E-Card?

Because your brain loves you when you get it right! It’s a fact. Something changes in our bodies the instant we find the words we’ve been searching for.

The best example is the feeling you get when you see someone you know coming toward you, but you can’t remember her name.

You know the feeling, right?

It’s physical. You smile awkwardly, while your mind scrambles through your mental Rolodex of names:

“Sarah?”

“Sandra?”

“Sally?”

“Shoot! What is her name?”

And then, it happens. Her sister shows up and instantly, you remember. “It’s Charlotte! Charlotte and Cherise Beignet. The Beignet sisters!”

The correct labeling of objects and feelings is soothing to areas of the brain associated with survival. Your life doesn’t depend on you remembering the names of the Beignet sisters. But it might depend on you properly identifying the word “snake” when you hear a hissing rattle coming at you in the desert.

Emotions come to us through our senses. We see, smell, taste, hear, or feel something, and our bodies react. We don’t consciously think “snake,” for example, and then run. We hear hissing and our brain says, “Run!” Only later—once we feel safe—do we have the luxury of time to reflect and accurately label the reason we reacted the way we did.

Anger is a destructive force in most relationships. It’s not a bad emotion. It’s just that its expression generally scares people without telling them anything useful.

Anger is blunt instrument. It does one thing extremely well. It pushes people away. But it doesn’t describe the other feelings that can bring us closer to the people we love.

Anger is blunt instrument. It does one thing extremely well. It pushes people away when we feel unsafe. But it doesn’t fully describe the complexity of the other feelings we’re having. It’s unusual to feel just anger, without also feeling hurt, embarrassed, lonely, dismissed, resentful, or controlled. And it’s the constructive expression of those feelings that can bring us closer to the people we love.

Filling out an E-Card makes you feel better because it helps you recognize, identify, and express the “all” of what you’re feeling: the hurt and the sadness, the disappointment and the loneliness, the heartache and the fear.

Many of my clients use the cards without ever sending them. They fill out the checklists as a way to clarify their thoughts and feelings before having a face-to-face conversation.

This naming process, and the soothing effect it has on us has been the greatest discovery for me in using the cards with my clients.  It turns out that learning to self-regulate by accessing the higher functions of the brain (where language is processed) is critical to self-mastery, and leads to more effective self-expression.

Affairs, Separation, Divorce Part 2: What about the kids?

In Part 1, I discussed why most affairs fail. If you have kids, your risk of failure is even greater. If you do decide to separate, divorce, or continue with an affair, Part 2 contains a list of Dos and Don’ts for parents to follow.

  • Do make sure your kids have someone to talk to: a counselor, clergy, or other trusted adult besides their parents.
  • Don’t think that just because they’re not talking about it, they aren’t struggling.
  • Do answer their questions honestly, but with restraint.
  • Don’t burden children with information they don’t need to know and won’t be able to forget. Remember: They are counting on you to make them feel safe in the world.
  • Do treat your spouse with respect. Your kids need two parents who can disagree, be angry, even fall out of love, but never be disrespectful of one another.
  • Don’t talk negatively about your ex or their affair partner to your kids, or within earshot of them, or in texts. It hurts them and makes you look heartless, cruel, or petty.
  • Always always communicate directly with your ex about changes in plans, requests, complaints.
  • Don’t put your kids in the middle. For example, Don’t pressure them take sides or ask them to “get your mom to say yes.”
  • Don’t pump kids for ‘dish’ on ex’s affair partner
  • It’s okay to share your sadness with children in general terms about what’s happening.
  • Do not over-share. For example, don’t discuss a spouse’s abusive behavior, unless the child has witnessed or overheard it, or you have concerns about the child’s safety with the other parent: chemical use, violence, extreme volatility.
  • Don’t use a child as your confidante. This is damagaing to teenagers as well as children.
  • Don’t expect them or guilt them into taking care of you.
  • Do assure them you are getting outside support (and get it!)
  • Do comply with agreements between you and your ex.
  • Don’t bribe kids with things the other parent can’t or won’t get them.
  • Don’t ever ask them to keep secrets from their mom or dad.

Above all, remember: Nothing you do as a parent is more important than keeping them healthy, mentally and physically during this difficult time for your family.

photo courtesy of Unsplash

Affairs Part 1 — Can they work out? What about the kids?

Do affairs ever work out for people? What you should know before you end your marriage.

In over 30 years as a marriage counselor, I’ve seen hundreds of couples. I’d say half are dealing with infidelity of one kind or another. Most of the men and women having affairs are good people who weren’t looking for trouble. More often than not, they started out as co-workers or Facebook friends, and ended up having an affair that threatens or ends their marriage.

“Most relationships that start as affairs don’t work out long term—unless both partners are young, childless, close in age, and relatively unencumbered.”

The reason they fail isn’t for lack of genuine feeling, but rather because the fall-out caused by infidelity is so horrendous, and so far-reaching.

Before you decide to end your marriage, make sure your new relationship can survive the fall-out.

Prepare yourself:

  • If both of you have kids, get ready for a rocky ride. As happy as the two of you are, it’s unlikely that your kids will be celebrating your good fortune. Unless your kids have witnessed repeated acts of physical or emotional abuse, they will want their parents to stay together.
  • Kids need stability. They shouldn’t have to worry about a devastated, angry mom or dad, or know that one parent is having a great time while their other parent is suffering.
  • You can’t control your spouse. She (or he) may be so angry, so hurt, so destroyed by your betrayal, that she may not be willing or able to hide her pain from your kids.
  • If your kids hear from their mom that their dad is a “liar,” a “cheater,” or a person who “cares more about his girlfriend than he does about us,” your kids will suffer, and your relationship with them may be damaged forever. (This may sound dramatic, but trust me. Unless all the adults involved exercise great care and excellent boundaries, you may never regain your kids’ trust.)
  • Kid Logic makes children—especially young children—see things as either good or bad, black or white. They see themselves at the center of everything. Because of this, it’s easy for them to believe that you must not love them enough if you left them to be with someone else.
  • Older kids may turn their backs on you, either to protect themselves, avoid public shame, or affirm their loyalty to the parent who was betrayed.
  • Your family may not accept or approve of your new partner. This includes: parents, siblings, and extended family as well as your wife’s parents, siblings, and extended family, and your lover’s parents, siblings, and most importantly, their children.

If, after considering all of these possibilities, you decide end your marriage and pursue your new relationship, proceed with caution.

Watch for Part 2: A list of Dos and Don’ts for parents who are separated or divorced

My biological clock is ticking

Dear Betsy,

I’m 27 and my biological clock is ticking. I just started dating a guy. I don’t want to rush things, but I also don’t want to wait too long and miss my chance to have a family.  Any advice for how to proceed?

My advice: Relaaaax.

Why not enjoy this phase and give yourself plenty of time to get to know each other? Let yourself discover who this man really is by seeing him under a variety of conditions, with a variety of people (friends, co-workers, family).  If you’re thinking seriously about this guy, you need to get a feel for who he is off-stage as well as on.  Take your time. Enjoy the excitement and newness of it all.  And don’t put pressure on yourself to know how it’s all going to turn out, before you know who the guy really is.

Speaking as a family therapist–and as a mother–who you have kids with is the most impactful decision you’ll ever make.

So don’t rush. Your biological clock is ticking, but you still have time. Make good use of it by doing basic research. Ask yourself these questions.  They’re the questions I wish everyone would ask before they take the ultimate plunge with someone.  If you don’t like the answers to the following questions, don’t waste your time with this person.

So here’s my list:

  1. Is this man a friend to your excitement, or is does he act threatened, bored, or judgmental when you talk about what you love?
  2. Does he regularly ask you questions that show he’s really interested in who you are and what you think–as opposed to taking up 90% of the airspace talking on and on about himself?
  3. Does he bring out the best qualities in you, or do you feel bad or “less than” in his presence?
  4. Is his masculinity fully-developed or does he still act like a grown-up teenager?
  5. Does he make you laugh?
  6. Does he find you amusing?
  7. Does he want kids?
  8. Do you trust him?
  9. Does he keep his promises?
  10. Does your family love him (and vice versa)?
  11. How does he treat his own family members and friends?
  12. How does he treat the people he’s had conflicts with?
  13. Does he have a drug or alcohol problem he’s not dealing with?
  14. Is he generous with his time, money, talents?
  15. Does he ever scare or threaten you? Do not stay–or leave your kids with someone who scares you.
  16. How does he treat you when he’s angry, upset, or not getting his needs met?
  17. Can he apologize when he hurts someone, or is it always someone else’s fault?

The answers to these questions will tell you a lot about who this man really is, and whether he’s someone you want to build a life with.

I hope I haven’t scared you off.  With the right person, love is grand.  So enjoy. But go slow. Pay attention to your needs, feelings, hunches, and observations, and don’t ignore or find reasons to justify actions or behaviors you don’t like. If over time everything feels right, then take the next step. But until you have the answers to these questions, proceed with caution. Better to take your time now than to find out too late that you let your itchy DNA decide your future.