Do you need to be forgiven for something, but don’t know how to make a sincere apology that actually inspires your partner to forgive you?
Perhaps the trust in your relationship has been eroded by feelings of betrayal, hurt or resentment as a result of what you did?
Read on, because new research reveals that there is much more to forgiveness than the ubiquitous “I’m sorry.”
One of the most common times people come to me for relationship help is when their relationship has suffered an affair and they want to know how to forgive a cheating spouse.
What I’ve learned over the years is that it doesn’t matter if you did something big (like cheating) or something small (like forgetting your anniversary dinner date).
What matters is how your partner felt when you did what you did, and what that means now about their ability to trust you and feel safe around you.
If you can’t apologize effectively (most of us don’t know how because we’ve never been shown), your partner’s emotional wounds will fester until resentment sets in and drives an immovable wedge between you both.
The good news is that researchers have studied forgiveness and discovered a way to apologize that works. Read on…
The Only Kind Of Apology That Works
The only kind of sincere apology that works is the kind that:
- helps your partner heal their hurt feelings,
- inspires them to forgive you, and
- restores the broken trust between you both.
Anything less is a waste of time because until your partner’s hurt is healed they’re not going to feel safe enough to open up to you again.
The New Science Of Forgiveness
The more I’ve studied forgiveness and experimented with it in my own relationship, the more convinced I’ve become of this:
Understanding Your Partner’s Fear Is Crucial To Restoring Broken Trust
Something most couples therapists don’t realize is that the anger and resentment displayed after a betrayal of trust usually cover up a softer, more vulnerable emotion – FEAR.
- the fear that the one person we count on to have our back (that’s you), doesn’t.
- the fear that the one person we hoped would accept us exactly as we are, thinks we’re not enough.
- the fear that the one person we dreamed would stick around is going to abandon us.
- the fear that the one person we trust to take care of us when we can’t, won’t.
Until you soothe these fears in your partner, real forgiveness cannot happen.
Because each of the of these fears is coded in your partner’s brain (in their amygdala) as a survival threat.
And as long as your partner perceives you as a possible threat to their survival, they’ll feel ‘unsafe’ around you. They may not even know why they feel unsafe around you. Then, instead of opening up, their protective walls will stay firmly erected, keeping their heart off limits to you.
For your apology to be effective, it has to move your partner’s unconscious perception of you from the “threat” category to the “safe” category in their mind and heart.
Why “I’m Sorry” Doesn’t Work
Let’s say, for example, that you forget your wedding anniversary dinner…
…and let’s assume that this incident is a huge betrayal of trust that your partner has been unable to forgive. Since that night, things haven’t been the same between you.
That dinner represented a celebration of your commitment to each other. Unconsciously, that dinner is the annual proof your partner needs to know that you love and care for them. That dinner means everything because that dinner reassures them that you still care.
So, when you stood them up (perhaps because an emergency happened at work), it was a BIG fucking deal. They feel angry and betrayed. Yet beneath that, their anger may be hiding a fear that you don’t care about them.
Judith Herman, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says that traumatic wounds are especially severe when they involve a “violation of human connection.”
How could forgetting a dinner be a violation of human connection?
Because that dinner represented proof of your spouse’s importance to you – and you forgot. Of course, you didn’t forget intentionally, but that is irrelevant.
Beneath their surface disappointment and anger, perhaps your partner feels abandoned – their sense of emotional safety shattered.
How can they trust you to put them first (a demonstration of having their back) when it really counts if you can’t even remember an anniversary dinner? They can’t – at least not until you apologize in a way that heals their hurt and restores their trust in you.
Regularly, I hear my clients attempting to apologize something like this:
“I said I’m sorry, OK!!! How many times
do I have to say it for you to believe me???”
Of course, this kind of apology is not even remotely effective because your spouse won’t feel like you really care or understand the depth of their pain and hurt. Their unconscious reasoning goes something like this: “If you can’t understand my pain you might hurt me again. Therefore I still don’t trust you.”
It is critically important for you to remember that this thought is an unconscious process for your spouse. It’s not like they are intentionally trying to punish you, drag things out or hang onto their resentment.
Their amygdala (the part of their brain responsible for the fight/flight/freeze response) literally will not let its guard down until you demonstrate that you are safe to be around.
They may have forgiven you consciously (reducing their own suffering and pain), but until you demonstrate that you understand their hurt and are remorseful for what you did, they will unconsciously be unable to trust you again.
Helping your partner trust you again, therefore becomes your responsibility.
How To Apologize So That You Are Forgiven
What follows is a step-by-step- forgiveness process that research studies have proven to work over and over again.
In a scientific study, EVERY couple who were able to do this (with one significant injury) healed their relationship, forgave their partner and increased their trust… and were still in that place 3 years later.
My steps below are simplified for the purposes of brevity.
How we healed a 1 night stand…
Many moons ago, a (now) ex-girlfriend invited another man up to her hotel room for sex while attending a business conference.
Once she had him in her room, she couldn’t bring herself to go through with it and stopped the action. She just wanted to feel desired.
She called me the next morning to tell me what had happened, how ashamed she felt and how sorry she was.
For a moment, I was furious and felt betrayed. Underneath my feelings of betrayal, I felt scared and abandoned.
How could I ever trust her again?
“Never ruin an apology with an excuse.”
~ Benjamin Franklin.
However, my girlfriend was smart and knew better than to be defensive…
Instead, she patiently listened to me express ALL my disappointment, hurt and anger until I was done and had emptied out my pain. She stayed emotionally present with me the entire time, never once defending her actions.
When I finally felt that my pain had been heard and understood by her, a magical thing happened – I no longer felt upset with her. I no longer felt scared or hurt – just compassion for her. It was as if her witnessing the outpouring of my feelings had somehow magically allowed my feelings to pass through me and leave.
She then broke down in tears and shared how sorry she was and how awful she felt that she had caused me so much hurt.
I could tell that she was feeling genuinely remorseful and suffering in her own pain.
She then asked me, “Baby, what do you need to feel safe again?”
I took a moment to think about it and said, “I need to feel that you still want me.”
She gently and patiently reassured me until I believed her, staying emotionally present the entire time.
By the end of the conversation, I understood that her actions meant nothing about her love for me, but were rather a reflection of her own insecurity. I harbored no feelings of betrayal and was able to completely let go of any resentment and hurt.
Love and gratitude slowly emerged. Over time, healing this betrayal resulted in us trusting each other more.
Without trust, your sex life will be the first casualty
If the trust between you has been eroded by some kind of betrayal, don’t think that the hurt will just fade away with time.
If you don’t make an apology that results in forgiveness, you are placing your relationship at risk.
Trust that may have taken years to build can be lost in seconds.
Without unshakable trust and safety, emotional intimacy is impossible. The first symptom to appear will be the death of your sex life.
Think about it… Why would your partner want to connect intimately with someone they don’t feel safe around? They wouldn’t. Nobody wants to be close to an enemy.
Here’s a brief summary of some of the less obvious facts about forgiveness and trust.
- Forgiveness is a conscious process – a choice.
- Trust is an unconscious process. Restoring it requires you to help your partner heal their hurt.
- “I’m sorry” is not enough to restore trust.
- Restoring trust requires you (as the injuring partner) to demonstrate that you 1) take your partner’s hurt seriously, and 2) that your partner’s pain hurts you. You can’t fake this step.
For your own peace of mind and your relationship’s sake, don’t put off apologizing.
It is possible to repair the broken trust between you if you use the 5 scientifically researched steps I outline above… and faster than you may think.
* This article is informed by the amazing research of Dr. Susan Johnson, the ideas of Werner Erhard and my own experience with this topic.