On a recent episode of the NBC series “This is Us”, one of the characters laments about how difficult it is to fix mistakes. He says, “‘I’m sorry’ is like a magic word when you’re a kid. Doesn’t matter what you did. Say you’re sorry and it all goes away. Then you grow up, and it just doesn’t work anymore, does it?”

As I reflected on what I heard, I was disappointed to realize that he might be right.  Kids on a playground knock each other down or say unkind things. They often apologize and go back to playing.  As adults, we struggle to heal emotional wounds, forgive, repair and move forward. It seems easier or feels better to stay angry, hold a grudge, or just remove someone from our life.  A relationship (of any type) can feel expendable when faced with the hard and painful work of relationship repair. 

Although we know that everyone makes mistakes, when we are the ones who get hurt, it is easy to forget that we have also been the offender at some point.  As I used to say when my kids were much younger and having their own “playground disputes”, “Today’s victim is tomorrow’s defendant.”

Life is messy.  Humans hurt each other.  Sometimes, humans do really awful things to each other. Sometimes it takes a long time to heal. Even so, remorse and apologies are just as important as repair and forgiveness. Many years ago, I heard a minister give a sermon on forgiveness and he said this, “Not forgiving someone is like walking around with an invisible noose around your neck. Forgiveness is the gift you give yourself.”  

Relationship repair - whether it is an intimate relationship, a family relationship, a work relationship - is possible. It takes honesty, grace and patience.

  • Focus on how each person is feeling about the situation. Stay away from seeking “the truth”.  Truth doesn’t matter if each person has a didn’t version of the story. How each person is feeling about what happened is the common ground.                  
  • Give it time.  It is unrealistic to expect the person who is feeling hurt to forgive immediately. Especially in relationships where there have been repeated trust violations, forgiveness is a process.  Authentic remorse and repair takes 3 steps:

1) Take responsibility for your words/conduct;

2) Give a genuine and meaningful apology; and 

3) Change your behavior in the future. An apology is  meaningless if it is not followed by a change in behavior.  Give it time.  With consistent behavior change, trust can be renewed.

  • Contemplate your own triggers and emotional issues. Can’t get past your anger and resentment (regardless of the role you are playing in the conflict)? Look inward. What past memories are coming up? What unresolved emotional wounds are being stirred up? What feels familiar about what is going on? Be kind to yourself. This is a journey.                                                          
  • Saying, “I’m sorry” is not a free pass. It does not necessarily erase what happened and it isn’t a “quick fix.” Being truly sorry means realizing that you hurt someone.  Even if you didn’t intend to do so, someone got hurt. Listen to their pain. Join them with what they are experiencing.                                           
  • Even with apologies, repair and forgiveness, the relationship might still end. Better to part with the conflict resolved then to carry the anger and resentment to the next relationship.

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Be well, my friends.