The Courage to Apologize in Couples Counseling and Beyond

"That really hurt what you said!! I felt rejected and like you didn’t even care if I was there. But thank you for taking the courage to apologize.  It makes me feel understood, heard, and safe because I know you care about me." Couples counseling helps elevate the words partners choose in their apologies.  Andrew Groeschel

The Courage to Apologize in Couples Counseling and Beyond
by Andrew Groeschel, Registered Marriage and Family Therapist Intern Supervised by Stuart Sovatsky

We have all been there.  We all know how bad it feels when we argue with a loved one.  Maybe we said something to our spouse or partner that upset them.   Maybe we feel wronged by them.  Maybe one misstatement sent a previously wonderful shared moment spiraling into a fractured free for all.  Both parties land broken, distrustful, and longing for connection amongst the rubble.  Tentatively we move toward reconciliation, but our words trip us up.  What to say? How to say it? How will we be received? The apology and forgiveness dance commences. Who will take the first step?

Imagine an apology is spoken…
I accept your apology.
Thank you for apologizing.
Thank you for taking the courage to apologize.
Three sentences. Three possible responses delivered from a “wronged” party to a “guilty” party.  As you speak these sentences, do three different energies seem to ripple off your tongue?  Imagine a loved one has hurt you.  Say each sentence.  Now, imagine you are on the other side of this exchange.  You just apologized and your contrition is met with one of these utterances.  How does your experience shift in each instance?

Read the first sentence again... I accept your apology  Imagine you are the apologizer. You said something hurtful to your spouse. You know you shouldn’t have, but you couldn’t stop yourself. You messed up and you know it.   In your attempt to repair – to reconnect ­– you apologize.  You are told, “I accept your apology.”  Thud.  Your risk – after all apologizing is a risky endeavor – is met with an ever so slightly submerged contempt.  Your apology is accepted, but you are left still feeling one down. You were wrong.  There is a contingency implied – you better not mess up again. There may be exceptions to my acceptance in the future should you misbehave.

How about the second option…Thank you for apologizing Does this move us closer to the synergistic power of apology and forgiveness working in tandem? Is it the “thank you” that gets us closer to this hopeful reconnection?  Is it the removal of the tinged tone of “accept”?  Maybe…

I am quite certain the majority of us have heard or used the first two responses.  After an argument, a rift, a misstatement, how many have ventured to voice the third or have been met with such a novel improvisation upon apologizing to the one we love? Thank you for taking the courage to apologizeI suspect very few of us. Two syllables – cour age – the heart to resile through adversity.  Can an impermanent one word ‘moment’ uttered with the power of belief lead a troubled couple or an ailing family toward deeper connection and hopeful regeneration?

Can we fathom the nonverbal blossoming of revived love through such a subtle verbal insertion?  In my work with couples I have witnessed it.  Often such exchanges end in the warmth of physical closeness…together again…here now…could it be forever?  I have repeatedly found that by engaging the solidifying powers of apology-courage-forgiveness couples can shift to an embodied gaze, hug, touch, hands clasping in a rearranging of attachment molecules – closeness is fostered again and again.

Is it possible to grasp that through our word choices we can implement optimism and inject hope where previously righteous indignation crushed one or the other partner into shameful guilt?  Can we elevate the language each partner uses in the relationship.  How can the word choices they make more fully reflect an ideal pregnant with the possibility of nourishment, longings fulfilled, and deeper, more meaningful connection? Imagine a dialogue like this:

Husband: I would like to apologize for raising my voice at you this morning before going to work. I was feeling rushed and pre-occupied with thinking about my work presentation. I didn’t take into account your feelings around longing for contact with me in that moment.

Wife:  That really hurt what you said!! I felt rejected and like you didn’t even care if I was there. But thank you for taking the courage to apologize.  It makes me feel understood, heard, and safe because I know you care about me.
Husband: I hear how much my words hurt you and that is what I am truly sorry for, that my speaking the way I did hurt you so much. Thank you for recognizing the risk in my apologizing. It makes me feel safe to risk sharing vulnerable feelings with you. I don’t feel judged. I feel supported even though I screwed up.  Thank you.

Wife: You are welcome. And again thank you for your courage. It will take me some time to fully get over it – I own that - but I am seeing how I can be inspired by your ability to reflect and apologize. You inspire me to look at my own part in our misunderstanding. I really appreciate how hard you work at your job. How can we work together next time so we both feel heard?

A courageous synergy between apology and forgiveness shifts into the possibility for endless mutual appreciation. The exercise lifts the aggrieved party out of their own victimhood.  They gain agency over their own reactions.  To honor the other person’s courage is to make oneself feel better as well. When we add courage to the mix we open the possibility of being awe-inspired by the heroism of the person apologizing.  We enter into their humanity as fallible folks wrestling with life’s challenges just like us.

Through this bridging gesture of courage inserted genuine remorse can come forth in a context of safety for both parties. The dialogue can forever progress through a series of appreciations – “Thank you” and “You are welcome” – repeated over and over again.

The act moves the couple out of the one upmanship of personal “truths” aired and victimhood recapitulated ad infinitum.  It can walk them off this precarious ledge and shift the discourse toward the co-creation of a new shared TRUTH.

This is by no means a cure all. It takes time and repetition.  However, done over again it can tune us into the subtler wavelengths of redemptive healing. It builds resilience in both the apologizer and the “wronged” party. Such subtle word “plays” ripple forth sounds which have the power to impact change in relationship.  Word “moments” strung together can take on a healing poignancy beyond measure. One act multiples one million times.

Try it sometime.  Thank your spouse, your partner, your friend, or your coworker for taking the courage to apologize to you.  See how doing so makes you feel different, more nourished, more in control of your own reactivity  See if you can feel the subtle shift, the novelty they experience in hearing this from you.  Hear how a space for forgiveness, compassion, and collaboration coalesce in the room.  Rather than being imprisoned by your resentment you can free yourself. You will allow the “guilty” party the space to deepen into their own awareness of how they may have hurt you in a non-vindictive, non-shaming way.  You will also be able to more clearly own your part in the rift. Maybe when the tables are reversed and it is your turn to apologize they will return the gift and admire your courage too.

Andrew Groeschel, MFT Intern (Supervised by Stuart Sovatsky MFT #19173) currently has an office in Oakland where he applies his uniquely strength based, aspiration focused, and spiritually nourishing approach to counseling with couples, families, and individuals. You can read more about him here and he can be contacted by phone (510.606.9981) or by e-mail (

Labels: , , , , ,