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Three Powerful Words; "I am Sorry"

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 “…and be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ forgave you.” 
                                                                       - Ephesians  4:32

Rev. Fr. Charles Joanides, Ph.D., LMFT

I recently worked with a couple who initially made some marked progress in therapy and then just as quickly slipped back into some old destructive patterns.  As a result, several sessions in a row were filled with lots of anger and resentment. In an effort to get them back on track, I decided to intervene in the following manner.  

Feigning confusion and discouragement, I shook my head back and forth and stated, “These last few sessions I keep trying to help you both see the two good people I see, but I can’t seem to get you to see beyond your hurt feelings and unresolved misunderstandings. So, maybe this homework assignment might help.”

The Homework

I want the two of you, on your own, to develop A Top 10 List of things you’ve done to one another that you regret doing because they have hurt your partner. Then I’d like you to schedule a time to share this list with your partner. But here’s the most important part of the exercise, after sharing each item on your list, in a respectful, sincere manner end with the following three words:  “I am sorry.”

After I finished describing this assignment, I asked if either partner had any concerns or questions. At first, both seemed stunned and speechless by what I had asked them to do. Discerning they needed some encouragement to help them embrace and complete this request, I added the following, “I know this is a very hard assignment, but what do you have to lose? Your relationship is already riddled with strife, and it doesn’t appear you’re going to get past these issues anytime soon.”

After offering these observations there was more silence. Then finally, the husband said, “How do I know this will help?”

“You don’t,” I answered. “And quite frankly, I don’t either. But one thing I do know is that if you both don’t find a way to get past all the anger and resentment you have for one another and begin reconnecting, I’m afraid you’ll continue to slip-slide further away from one another and into more and more anger and resentment.”

I allowed more silence to fill the room, deliberately waiting for the two of them to carefully consider what I stated. This time the wife spoke up.  “I don’t believe we can do this on our own, so the only way I’ll agree to participate in this exercise is if we can create our list at home and read them in front of you.”

“That sounds reasonable,” I stated, and then looked at her husband and continued. “So what you think, are you in agreement with this change?” With a little more prodding, he reluctantly agreed.

A week later, the couple came back. To be honest I was fully prepared to hear one or both partners state that they hadn’t completed their homework. But to my surprise, when I finally asked about it, both pulled out a sheet of paper indicating they were ready to proceed. This might be good news, I reasoned, and then said, “Before proceeding, I’d like to set in place a few ground rules.

  • You have to turn to face one another to do this exercise.
  • Each partner will read an item from their list in a respectful tone of voice which will end with the statement, “I am sorry.”
  • After each statement, there will be a brief 10 second pause to permit both to process each other’s statements.
  • There also won’t be any room for conversation until you’ve finished reading your lists.”                                                  

The Outcome

Both agreed to these basic rules. I then had them flip a coin to determine who would go first. They flipped the coin and the husband won. Appearing tentative and nervous, he began. There was a ten second pause then his wife read an item from her list.

After the first few apologies were made, neither partner showed much emotion. But as the exercise continued, the wife appeared to soften and was beginning to look tearful. As a result, she stated. “I can’t go on. This is too hard.”

“Come on,” I said. “Give it a chance. It might help.” She grudgingly agreed and they continued.

By the time the couple reached their sixth apology, both were tearful and unsettled. So, I slowed the process down and asked them to self-sooth themselves with some deep breathing. When they both seemed more collected, we resumed.

With each apology offered, I sensed the tension lifting and connection forming, until they reached the end of the exercise and there was more silence. But this time, the silence was qualitatively different. It was evident that the power behind this exercise touched them and I knew not to speak. Whatever needed to be said must come from them. The husband spoke first.

“I never knew you regretted these things.”

“And I didn’t know you were sorry about what you mentioned.”

“I’m sorry,” he said again. “I am too,” she stated.

We used the remainder of the session to reconnect further. It was a turning point for them and this therapy.   

Conclusion

This technique doesn’t always work. Sometimes it fails miserably. Still, when it does work, it usually has a significant impact on both partners.

With regard to this couple, this was a small, but significant turning point in their efforts to reinvigorate their marriage and begin cultivating connection and oneness.  That’s because forgiveness helps neutralize the toxic effects of anger and resentment, helping us to move past the underlying anger, resentment, guilt, shame, frustration, anxiety and fear that often drives a couple’s disagreements and arguments. Moreover, like the verse from Holy Scripture that stands at the top of this article, when we are able to “be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ forgave  you.” (Eph. 4:32) seemingly immovable couple problems are removed paving the way for increased oneness and connection. So, in your efforts to get past couple gridlock, don’t forget three powerful words,  “I am sorry.” They can often be the catalyst that makes a difference in a couple’s efforts to reconnect and respectfully move toward oneness.