Making your Apology Stick

All too many people apologize and promise to change, but fail to follow it up. Not only do they fail to fulfill their promises, but they even fail to notice whether they’ve fulfilled them or not.

When you make your formal apology, admit your mistakes, work out how to make amends, and document the proceedings, you’re not done until you both open up your calendars and schedule a time to review your progress. You should meet again sooner, rather than later, after a week or two, or even after a few days, depending on how long it takes to enact the amends you have promised.

Some amends take longer to enact than others. Take amends for violence, for instance. If you’re the kind of guy that scares the bejeebers out of your family by punching holes in walls, overturning furniture, cussing, and slamming doors, you probably don’t do all that very often. Having a temper tantrum once every few years, or even once, is enough to scare people to their core and even hurt them, as well as get you in serious trouble. If you sincerely apologize for this behavior and promise to make amends by never doing it again, it may take years before anyone can admit you’ve kept your promise. Twenty years could go by and they could still be expecting another meltdown.

The amends you should promise should be something you can do right away, or even every day, and be related to the offense. Rather than promising never to put another hole in the wall, you can promise to talk about your feelings respectfully, rather than act on them. Take care of that and the practice of making holes in the walls will take care of itself.

If you schedule your review session very soon, like after a day or two, and if your amends are the kind you can perform daily, your partner will probably report you’ve done very well. Anyone can do well for a day or two after they apologize. If you don’t do well, maybe your amends need a tweak. You could need some help. The point is, the sooner you schedule a review, the sooner you notice if it’s not working, and the sooner you can prevent the problem from getting momentum again.

Let’s say your husband has been concerned about your drinking and you apologized for puking all over his stamp collection and promised to make amends by replacing a rare Mauritanian dodo bird stamp and keep your wine consumption under a glass a day. When you review on day three, you’re able to say the stamp has been found and ordered, but you have to admit that, on day two, you got sloshed yet again. If you can’t go three days without getting sloshed, you need help and may tweak your amends by adding that you’ll attend AA or go see a counselor about the problem. You might even find it easier to not get into the wine at all, rather than try to stop after one drink.

When people fail to schedule a review of progress, it’s not like their progress is never noticed. It’s noted when they relapse. What happens is that you go on limiting your drinking to one a day, until three months later when you don’t. Then the shit hits the fan and you get told that you don’t take it seriously when you really did very well, unnoticed, for three months.

Having frequent reviews can insure that you get positive feedback when you are doing well. These sessions also give you an opportunity to gracefully perform the hardest operation in this whole apologizing business, addressing your partner’s part in the problem. Right after he says, “Yes, you have been limiting your wine consumption to one glass a day and I appreciate the Mauritanian dodo stamp you got me.” That’s when you say, “Thank you. Now that I’ve been drinking less, I’ve noticed that you pay more attention to your stamp collection than you do me.”

If you’re like anyone who’s gotten in trouble, you know you don’t deserve one hundred percent of the blame. You could have been drinking all that wine because you were feeling ignored and you had to silence yourself from disturbing your husband when he was preoccupied with his stamp collection. You’ve done well if you’ve restrained yourself from pointing fingers at him till after you’ve taken responsibility for your part; but, if you go on feeling ignored without saying anything, that’ll turn into one more thing to be sorry about.

In the next section, I’ll show you that hazardous stretch of the road to reconciliation: the part where you complain and effect a change without your partner hating you.