Sorry Relationships: Navigating Differences In How We Apologize

In recent months, my wife and I have spent considerable time trying to help our 3 year old learn to apologize, especially when she hits, kicks or bites us (or others).

It’s comforting to hear from her preschool director, and other parenting resources, that not only is her behavior age-appropriate, but that teaching some young kids, like ours, to say: “I’m sorry,” can be a persistent battle. (FYI, we’re also teaching her to not hit, kick or bite us!)

It’s worth mentioning that we’re also impressed by our daughter’s tenacity, and want to stay conscious of treading the fine line between teaching her to apologize and honoring her strength and resolve.

One of the things I find interesting about apologies is that they aren’t just a subject of contention among parents and kids. Apologies can also be a battlefield between spouses, e.g., in terms of who apologizes more, and when or how we apologize.

The cultural mythology goes something like this: Women are good at apologizing and men aren’t. Why? Because, it’s assumed, women are more skilled at tending to others, while men equate apologizing with weakness.

On the surface, the results of a 2010 University of Waterloo study confirm this cultural myth (granted, with college students as respondents, not spouses):

Women do, indeed, apologize more than men do.

No surprise, right? Except for the fact that there were no gender differences in the “proportion of offenses that prompted apologies.” What does that mean?

The “apologizing is weak” argument assumes that guys refuse to apologize, even if they think they’ve done something wrong. Yet, the study suggests something else:

When men and women believe they’ve done something wrong, they apologize with the same frequency. The difference is, then, in their perception of wrongdoing.

Simply put: The female respondents thought they had screwed up more, and that others had done them wrong more, than the males did. Plus, when given the same list of offenses, women rated them as more severe than their male counterparts did, which is important because ratings determined whether or not respondents thought an apology was warranted and, if so, what kind.

How might this impact our relationships? At the very least, it suggests that, if we clash with spouses over apologizing, we shouldn’t equate what goes on between adults with parenting our kids.

When children resist our efforts to, for example, teach them how to apologize, it’s likely that at least part of that dynamic is about power: We’re exerting it and they want it. But if these findings are accurate, power isn’t the core issue with our spouses.

Instead, the study confirms a truism we know but often resist: People are different. Yes, the focus here is on gender differences, but I suspect there exist husbands who apologize more than their wives. So what’s the bottom line for our marriages?

People have different standards of wrongdoing. So even if we disagree with our spouses’ standards, doing so doesn’t make ours more valid.

How do we navigate those differences? If we feel slighted, one approach is to share our standards with subjective language. Here’s a sample script:
“In my experience of the world, when others do or say [insert behavior], I feel [detail your feelings]. What I’d most appreciate from you now and in the future is [request].”

Here’s an example from my relationship (BTW, I’m the interrupter):
“In my experience of the world, when others interrupt me, I feel disrespected and dismissed. What I’d most appreciate from you now and in the future is that you make an effort to not interrupt me.”

The most important response we can give our spouses when they describe their perspective is to understand and acknowledge the validity of their standard, even if we don’t agree, or don’t want to fulfill their request.

Obviously, my wife wanted more than an apology. After expressing my understanding and acknowledgment of her perspective, I could: (1) get defensive (which is a communication style known to erode relationship satisfaction); (2) understand her request, but refuse it; (3) negotiate a new request; or (4) grant it.

All options were feasible. What’s important to consider in choosing one is what will serve our relationship best, not either of us individually, but the relationship we’ve created together (and how we want to model it for our kids).

For a number of reasons—including that I’d read about a correlation between interrupting and power plays—I opted to apologize and grant her request; with the caveat that it’s an old habit and she might need to remind me to interrupt my interrupting…which she now does with great enthusiasm!

Back to our daughter: After reading about the University of Waterloo study, we’re rethinking our parenting strategy around apologizing, not in terms of her learning to apologize when she lashes out at us, but in terms of assuming that she always needs to apologize for physical aggression.

Thus far, we’ve used absolute language like: “We never hit, or kick or bite others.” But the truth is that we’d want her to do any or all of these, for example, in self-defense, and not apologize, or think twice about her behavior being wrong in any way.

This study has reminded me that there is, and I really want there to be, a sliding scale when it comes to standards of wrongdoing. While, at the moment, my wife and I are gatekeepers of those standards for our daughter, as time goes by we’ll encourage her to make those determinations for herself.

And just as our spouses have the right to different standards than we do, so too do our children…even if we don’t always agree with them.


2 responses to “Sorry Relationships: Navigating Differences In How We Apologize

  1. Parenting….no wonder there isn’t a “Guide” that comes out with the baby, attached to his/her ankle at birth! You’re points (once again) are interesting at the least and speak volumes to better understanding our own learned behavior (whether it has served us well or not), how to better serve our relationships and equally if not more important, what we “want/opt” to teach our wee-one’s. Having a son who’s not quite two and a half yet, I too am seeing the “double standards” of life’s lesson’s and the challeges that come along with teaching our morals and ethics. Confusing to say the least at times!!! Your article has made me open my mind to staying ahead of the game in some areas while maintaining a truth and hands-on (not hitting of course, ha!) approach to life as it happens with him.
    Thank you for another “spot on” and important article.

  2. Thanks so much, Cindy! So true about the parenting guide, though to be honest I still wish there was one (as well as one for capably navigating relationships; and relationships in combination with parenting)! 🙂

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