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 been has 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 it and what that means now about their ability to feel safe around you.
The only sincere apology that works is the kind that:
- heals your partner’s hurt feelings, and…
- restores trust and safety to your relationship or marriage.
Anything less is a waste of time, because until your partner’s hurt gets healed they’re not going to feel safe to completely trust your heart again.
“Resentment is like drinking poison and
waiting for it to kill your enemy.”
~ Nelson Mandela.
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:
The anger and resentment caused by a betrayal of trust protects a softer, more vulnerable injury – often…
- …the fear that the one person we count on to be in our corner, isn’t.
- …the fear that the one person we count on to have our back, 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.
Until these fears are addressed, real forgiveness cannot happen.
Because each of the of these fears is coded in your (or your partner’s) brain as a survival threat. And as long as they see you as unsafe to open up to, their protective walls will stay firmly erected, keeping their heart closed to you.
For your apology to be effective, it has to move your partner’s 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 connection – 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 be there for them when it really matters? They can’t – at least not until you apologize in a way that heals this hurt and restores trust.
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 response) literally will not let it’s guard down until it 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.
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…
One night during a really tough period in the Power Struggle stage, my (now) ex-girlfriend invited another man up to her hotel room for sex while attending a business conference.
At the time, we were in the middle of trying to get back together after a painful break up.
Once she had him in her room, she couldn’t bring herself to go through with it and stopped the action, telling him she was in love with me.
She called me the next morning to tell me what had happened, how “fucked up” she felt and how sorry she was.
I was furious and felt betrayed. Underneath that I felt abandoned.
“How could I ever trust her again?” I thought.
Although we were not officially back together, we were working towards that outcome. I felt like the one person in the world I needed to be able to trust to be there for me, could no longer be counted on to be there.
My girlfriend knew better than to be defensive…
Instead, she listened to me express ALL my hurt and anger until I was done. It took me 15 minutes of expressing my anger and hurt before I calmed down, and she stayed emotionally present with me the entire time.
I felt heard and understood.
She then broke down in tears and shared how sorry she was and how awful she felt that she had caused me to feel so abandoned at such a critical time in our relationship.
I could see that she was genuinely remorseful and deeply 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 like you love me, like I’m the only man for you and like you are still sexually attracted to me.”
She gently and patiently reassured me until I believed her, staying emotionally present the entire time.
By the end of the conversation I harbored no feelings of betrayal and was able to completely let go of any resentment and hurt.
We were both flooded with feelings of love and gratitude for one another and from this experience, the trust between us grew stronger than it had been before.
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 brings forgiveness to your relationship you are placing your relationship at risk.
Trust may have taken years to build, yet it can be lost in seconds.
Without unshakable trust and safety, vulnerability, emotional intimacy and closeness are impossible. The first thing to go will be your sex life.
Why would your partner want to connect intimately with someone they don’t feel safe around? They wouldn’t.
For your own peace of mind and your relationship’s sake, don’t put off apologizing. It is possible to restore trust between you if you use the 5 scientifically researched steps I outline above… and faster than you may think.