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Dear Dr. Saltzman,

I hope you don't find this question trivial compared to more serious problems.

Why do people find it so hard to apologize and when they do, it isn't really an apology at all, or it isn't sincere. I tried to explain to my husband that when he says, "I'm sorry you're disappointed," he isn't apologizing for his own behavior. Also when I apologize to him, rather than accepting it gracefully, he has to somehow rub it in that I screwed up.

Any insight into this business of saying you're sorry would be most appreciated.



Hello, Louise--

No problem is trivial if it feels important to you. Life takes place in the awareness of the perceiver, so that the emotional experiences of one being really cannot be compared to those of another. Indeed, one of the greatest challenges to the psychotherapist is to find a way somehow to understand the feelings of another person without imagining they are the same as what the therapist, in similar circumstances, might feel. In other words, if I want to know something real about your experience, I must remember that my feelings are not necessarily the same as yours at all. This understanding is the beginning of what I like to call deep listening.

In one way, this is obvious. For example, a mature woman probably would not burst into tears if her ice cream cone fell to the ground before it was finished, but her three year old daughter might very well mourn that kind of loss with sad cries. And a compassionate parent would not trivialize the child's loss by telling the child that she is overreacting. In other words, a capable mother would not expect the child's emotional experiences to be the same as hers.

But in another way, the idea that one person's subjective experience is not the same as another's is not at all obvious. In fact, failing to grasp the subtleties of this situation means that many of us only rarely, or perhaps never, come into real contact with the experiential world of another person. Quite likely you are not in touch with your husband's inner world, nor he with yours, and this may be the deeper root of the suffering you feel when he does not give you the kind of apology you seem to require. Perhaps you feel, maybe without even knowing it, that if your husband really heard you, really saw you, really felt you, then he would be able, even willing, to apologize for having hurt you somehow.

Now you say that your husband refuses to tell you that he regrets those of his behaviors which hurt you, but there could be any number of reasons for this. For example, perhaps your expectations are unreasonably high. Perhaps you are demanding things, I mean, of which your husband is not capable, or you might be asking for things which he cannot give and still remain true to himself. But assuming that this is not the case, that you are simply asking your husband to consider your ordinary needs, and that he seems unwilling to take responsibility for meeting them, then I would suppose that your husband lacks the ability to really listen to and hear you when you speak--deep listening--or perhaps he lacks civility (a sense of courtesy), or both.

Now, in my experience as a relationship counselor, these two items, the ability to listen deeply, and the ability to be civil and courteous, are the two most important skills for happiness in an intimate relationship. These two skills are so vitally important because intimate relationships always involve the meeting of two egos, a sure-fire recipe for clashes, misunderstandings, power struggles, and hurt feelings.

All egos are the same in one regard; the most basic aim of the ego is to remain intact, to survive. But the way that one personality pursues that most urgent egoic goal of self-preservation may differ radically from the way that another person strives for the same objective. Given this inevitable difference in ego-styles, if two people are to get on well together, it is important that they learn to listen deeply when conversing, to listen, that is, with the motive of hearing and understanding something of the pain, hopes, fears--the inner experience, that is--of the other. Also, since the needs of one ego often and quite naturally may be in conflict with the needs of the other, an attitude of civility helps to keep the peace so that these inevitable egoic conflicts--conflicts of needs, aims, and intentions-- do not spiral into unpleasant and damaging egoic warfare.

Without knowing your husband personally, I cannot offer an informed opinion as to why he might be so reluctant to accommodate your need for a civil apology when you ask for one. Often it is the case that the roots of this kind of stubbornness go back many years to some childhood experiences with shame and guilt. Indeed, your husband's inability not just to offer a real apology when needed, but also his inability gracefully to accept your apologies suggest to me that the entire area of apologizing and accepting apologies (an important part of civility and keeping the peace between partners) somehow for your husband is laden with guilt and shame.

That the roots underlying such matters often go so deep explains why a depth approach psychotherapy--one that looks into the personality development of both partners--is so useful in couples therapy, and why self-help books, pastoral counseling, couples workshops, and the like almost always, in my opinion, either do not help, or, even worse, do more harm than good.

In other words, it is easy to tell people that they ought to learn to get along or that the two most important relationship skills are deep listening and keeping the peace, but practicing those skills, or even wanting to put them into practice, is another matter entirely. Almost always, instructions in a book, a lecture, or some kind of superficial "counseling" are not enough to do the trick. As I have stated elsewhere, my clients often bring self-help books to me for my review, and I have yet to find one which I can, in good conscience, recommend at all. Relationship workshops, for which people pay hundreds of dollars or more, are even worse, and the guilt generated by religious counseling, in which we are told to get along because "God" wants us to, is incalculable.

Given the level of frustration you expressed in your letter, if your husband is not willing to get some help with this impasse--some competent couples counseling, I mean--I am afraid that your marriage may become unworkable, so I suggest that you try to seek out that kind of help immediately.

Be well.

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