How Your Guilt Can Punish Your Partner and Why You Want to Stop Apologizing

Actually, it’s not a good idea to stop apologizing all together. But resorting to repetitious apologies in an effort to restore trust and intimacy with your partner can produce unexpected results. Unfortunately, this guilty approach to relationships often backfires.

Saying you are sorry is a great way to soften the defended energy which is aroused when your actions have hurt someone you love. Saying you’re sorry helps reduce the defensiveness which might lead you to explain and excuse your misdeeds rather make amends. And an apology is a great way to let the person you’ve hurt know that you see what you did wrong and are taking steps to correct it.

But sometimes the words “I am sorry” take us away from love and intimacy.

We are all familiar with people who say “I’m sorry” just so they can gain your trust and get themselves off the hook. It is infuriating when we trust the words “I’m sorry” and let down our defenses, only to be hurt in the same way once again.

But how can we tell if the person apologizing is really going to change? For that matter, how can we be sure we are capable of true change when we apologize? After all, how many times have you let yourself down by doing the very thing you said you were sorry for to the same person you apologized to in the first place?

We have all been there at least a few times and, believe it or not, much of our confusion probably began long before we had romantic partners.

As children, most of us were admonished to apologize for things we did which displeased the adults in our lives. We might not have felt all that bad about our actions at the time, but when we were confronted with stern attitudes or shaming pronouncements we quickly learned to say we were sorry — even if secretly we believed we had not done anything wrong. The typical result was a forced and half-hearted “I’m sorry” directed toward our “victim” – often a sibling or playmate.

As children, the words “I’m sorry” can feel like a magic wand which miraculously erases all the tension and ill will, providing us with an easy reset on our human interactions. “I’m sorry” allows us to reengage with the good graces of our parents, family and friends.

However, as we become older, the words “I’m sorry” don’t always have the magical effects they did in our childhoods.. Traffic tickets do not disappear when we say we’re sorry. And employers have little tolerance for apologies, showing a strong preference for consistent results rather than empty promises.

But our personal relationships often emulate our childhood interactions, and it is here that we may be inclined to abuse the persuasive power of “I’m sorry.”
While I don’t think we should stop telling our partners we are sorry, there are different ways to apologize. Some work better in the long run than others.

For instance, many abusive partners resort to “I’m SO Sorry, Honey, I promise I will NEVER do it again.” The words sound great and the emotions seem sincere, and yet the abusive partner WILL do it again and again. Without a solid plan for changing their behavior, no amount of remorse or guilt will provide the transformation they may genuinely desire. And worse, some abusive partners have no intention of changing; they simply want their partner to stick around so they can repeat their abusive behavior.

Although most of us are not in relationships we consider “abusive,” the pattern of apologizing but never actually changing is one we can all relate to. Who hasn’t heard the words “I’m sorry, I will never do it again,” only to be subjected to repeat performances of the hurtful behavior from someone you trusted was truly sorry? And who among us has a perfect track record of never doing it again once we have apologized for something? More often than we would probably like to admit, we provide our partners with repeat performances of the things we intend to stop doing, despite our best intentions.

Wishing or resolving to do better next time might feel good in the moment, but by itself rarely leads to positive change. How then can we move toward the change we desire? How can we turn our apologies into something meaningful instead of a mere recitation of “magical” words?

We need to take practical steps that support the change we intend. That might involve reading a self-help book, working with a coach or counselor, taking up a new spiritual practice, or otherwise g obtaining help for realizing positive changes in our actions.

And while we are working on our behavior, it is also important to work with the underlying feelings that we experience. The energy of our emotions has a profound impact upon every facet of our lives.

Take guilt, for instance. Guilt is a powerful emotion. We can use guilty feelings to motivate us to change and grow in ways which not only improve our connections with others, but provide us with a more pleasurable and satisfying life experience. Used this way, guilt can evoke positive change in our lives.

However, guilt can also become a habit. When we stay stuck in our guilt instead of allowing it to move us forward into a positive action, guilt can erode our self-esteem and even punish our partner. How?

Well for one thing guilt is an emotion which can create a sense of separation. It is contractive rather than expansive. Instead of drawing closer to your partner and enjoying more intimacy, you may experience more isolation as your guilt becomes a barrier between you and your partner. The end result can be layers of hurt as your partner first suffers the injury which led to your guilt in the first place, and then endures your emotional absence while you indulge your feelings of guilt.

For instance, let’s say you have admitted to and apologized for spending a sizable chunk of your mutual savings on a major purchase such as an appliance or automobile, without first consulting with your partner. Your partner is understandably upset and no longer trusts you to the same degree that they did before your confession and contriteness. It seems like a lousy way to reward you for telling the truth. Nevertheless you continue to apologize, hoping that eventually your partner will finally forgive you and life will get back to “normal.”

But life doesn’t return to “normal,” and your partner doesn’t forgive you. Instead, you find yourself saying “I’m sorry” about twenty times a day while your partner lobs cheap shots at your integrity. What’s wrong with this scenario?

Here’s what is lacking: 1) Taking Responsibility to Change and 2) Empathizing Instead of Feeling Guilty. Trust isn’t rebuilt with apologies. Trust is restored when we become more trustworthy and that is best accomplished when we take steps to change. In this example, proposing an agreement with your partner to consult each other anytime either of you considers an expenditure in excess of an agreed upon dollar amount could create healing and increase the emotional intimacy in your relationship. Enrolling in a money management course might go a long way toward creating change as well as inspiring trust too.

There are many actions you can take to change your patterns and rebuild trust with your partner. What you decide to do is sometimes less important than the fact that you are making a commitment and creating a plan for how to change.

Even though you take concrete steps to change your behavior, your partner isn’t going to suddenly “get over it” and go back to “normal.” In fact, if they are “normal,” they will need time and your attention to heal and move into a place of intimacy and vulnerability with you again. This is where empathy comes in.

Empathy is much more valuable to your partner than your guilt. We all want to feel truly heard and deeply understood. When we are the source of our partner’s pain, that can be particularly difficult to provide, but that is when it is needed the most. Giving your partner plenty of time and permission to grieve the loss in trust is a huge gift, especially if you are the source of that loss in trust.

It is far more productive to allow your guilt to move you into taking responsibility for your actions, and into validating your partner’s feelings of hurt. If you take responsibility and empathize with your partner, you can also experience a sense of empowerment and increased self-esteem. The end result can be more intimacy and joyful feelings flowing between you and your partner.

If your apology is heartfelt, but doesn’t lead you to this place of joy and intimacy, then there is a good chance you are getting stuck in the guilt. Guilt can motivate positive change, but guilty feelings should not become a way of life! Guilt can separate us from those we love, essentially causing us to abandon them. What those we hurt need most is our responsible action, our empathy, and our understanding of their pain. Endless apologies and self-recrimination are an indication that guilt has become entrenched. Rather than leading to growth, it can destroy connection with self and others.

By using your guilt as motivation to take concrete, practical steps toward positive action, you can create a variety of uplifting outcomes for you and for those you love. In this way, even potentially devastating mistakes can catapult your relationships into more joyful dimensions than ever before. But you have to ride the guilt like a wave until it deposits you upon the warm shores of personal responsibility and growth. When you develop a taste for this process, the sky is the limit!

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