One thing that often comes up when counseling couples is the issue of apologies. I often ask spouses, “Do you apologize to each other,” or “What is it like for you to apologize?” A follow-up question is, “Are you able to accept apologies?”
A sincere apology requires humility because pride must be swallowed. Some people have such an aversion to being wrong that it obstructs their empathy towards others. They assume a defensive stance as they think only of self. It’s hard to embrace someone through a suit of armor or a castle wall. Apologies require vulnerability. The armor must come off. Knights wear armor for fear of swords and arrows. When the armor comes off, vulnerability increases and so does the fear. Apologizing can be difficult because one must drop the defenses.
Some folks apologize incessantly. This is usually a sign of an insecure, passive type of person and/or an abusive relationship, not a healthy relationship. There’s no reason for a genuine apology unless there has been a genuine offense.
Accepting an apology is another matter. It’s even harder to drop the defenses and apologize to someone who can’t accept an apology graciously. Some people use the apologies of others as opportunities to “twist the knife,” as in, “Darn right you shouldn’t have done that, you big jerk!” A sincere apology is a gift. The proper response to a sincere apology is, “Thank you, I accept your apology.” The acceptance should then be followed up with genuine forgiveness. One who holds a grudge, pouts or gives “the silent treatment” has not really accepted the apology.
I saw a quote once that said, “Marriage is an adventure in forgiveness.” Peter asked Jesus if he should forgive someone seven times. Jesus told him, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven.” (Matt 18:22) Of course, the point is not to forgive a person 490 times and then quit. The point is to always be forgiving. Forgiveness is not necessarily a onetime event. Often we have to say, “Oh yeah, I forgave them for that yesterday, so I need to stick with it.” Similarly, marriage is a choice we make every day, not just on our wedding day.
Forgiveness is not the same as trust. If someone whacks me with a stick when I walk past, I can forgive that person. That doesn’t mean I have to trust that person to cease the stick-whacking. “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” If the person displays sincere remorse and proper behavior over time, however, trust may be reestablished. One forgives in order to avoid carrying around a cancerous grudge, not in order to “let the person off the hook” of responsibility. I can forgive someone for stealing my car, but the car still needs to be returned and/or jail time must be served. This, by the way, relates to the Catholic understanding of penance, indulgences, Purgatory and the temporal punishment for sin that remains even after we have been forgiven of our sins. Of course, Christ forgives our sins. We are still responsible to make amends wherever we can. That’s the fruit of true repentance. Scripture tells us to avoid the altar until we have made amends.
So, if a marriage is rocky, each spouse can benefit from asking, “What am I not forgiving my spouse for?” and “What am I not apologizing for?” Making amends is a sign of true friendship, spiritual humility and a happy marriage.