Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word

What is it about apologies? What is it about the thought of saying “I’m sorry” that puts in motion that hardening, closing, resisting feeling in the pit of our stomachs, that corrals our minds and constricts our throats (or maybe that’s just me)?

Early on in the relationship with my husband my apologies used to sound something like this: “Am I sorry? Oh, I’m sorry. Sooo unbelievably sorry that you are too immature and too oblivious to even try and wrap your tiny little brain around what I was saying to you. I apologize.” Charming, no? Defensive apologies take the semblance of an apology, wrap it in an attack, and deliver it like a brick through a window. They are about as helpful at repairing a relational hurt as having a double espresso is helpful at calming your nerves. That’s not to say they don’t serve a purpose, it’s just a very different purpose than the one apologies are intended to serve. Defensive apologies soothe our own egos, let us stay in the protected (but disconnected) place of “I’m right and you’re wrong” and create distance in a relationship when closeness may feel too vulnerable to bear.

Shame based apologies on the other hand, look more like a genuine apology on the surface: “I did it again didn’t I? God I’m so sorry, I don’t know why you put up with me. I am such a piece of shit, I hate myself.” A shame based apology changes the conversation. Your partner is no longer talking about whatever it was they were upset about, they’re refuting (or agreeing with) your basis for self-loathing and end up either putting their own concerns aside in order to comfort you, or feeling like a monster for kicking you when you’re already kicking yourself.

So what does a genuine apology sound like? It starts with “I’m sorry.” Not “I’m sorry but” followed by excuses, rationalizations or explanations, not “I’m sorry you feel that way” or “I’m sorry if I did anything to hurt you.” In short, a genuine apology starts with genuinely feeling apologetic, honestly assessing your side of the interaction and taking ownership of your part in it. The second part of a genuine apology is talking about the experience in a way that shows your partner you can empathize with their point of view. For example, “I’m sorry. What I said was mean and hurtful and probably made you feel like you don’t really matter to me.” Your ego will not enjoy your genuine apology (alright, I’m talking about myself again), but your relationship definitely will.

Breaking Up Without Breaking Your Lover Down

“Parting is such sweet sorrow,” Juliet says to Romeo shortly after they’ve declared their love (and shared a few hot kisses on the balcony). If only those were the only kinds of partings our hearts had to endure, the ones rife with the sweetness of what we’ve just known, and the ache of anticipation for when we’ll know it again.

I don’t get to hear too much about those kinds of partings in my role as a couples therapist. Sadly, the partings I’m most familiar with are the ones where I bear witness to a love story coming to an end – less dramatically than Romeo and Juliet’s to be sure, but too often with little sweetness and a soul-crushing amount of sorrow.

If you are the one who’s decided to end your relationship, you have every right to do so. A love relationship is not a prison sentence, you can exercise your free will and leave when it is no longer your desire to be in relationship, regardless of time served. The responsibility that comes along with that free will is to treat your partner ethically, to have the courage to be honest, and to communicate that honesty in a way that is also empathetic.

In years of working with couples, some of the most painful words I’ve heard uttered in the midst of a break-up are along the lines of “… I’m not sure I ever…” For example, “I’m not sure I ever loved you.” “I’m not attracted to you any more, I don’t know if I ever really was.” “I’m not happy in this marriage, I never have been.”

When the desire to break up is one-sided, telling your partner you don’t want to continue the relationship takes away their vision of the future. Adding some version of “and I’m not sure I ever” alters their experience of the past, leaving them questioning what they thought they didn’t have to question.

I don’t discount that “I’m not sure I ever” may be the truth, or that it at least feels like your truth right now; what I’m advocating for is making sure you’re sharing that truth with an audience that is able to withstand hearing it. Your therapist, your best friend, your journal, your local bartender (in a pinch) — all appropriate audiences. The partner who’s trying to cope with the sorrow of an undesired parting — not the right audience.

What is Moderate Drinking?

Having a discussion about drinking can open the door to a number of debates and controversies:

  • Is alcoholism a disease or a bad habit?
  • Is there even such a thing as ‘alcoholism’?
  • Can problem drinkers learn to drink non-problematically, or is abstinence the only viable option?
  • What are the parameters for moderate or social drinking?

According to the guidelines published by Health Canada, moderate drinking for men is defined as: no more than three drinks on any one occasion with no more than three occasions per week or no more than two drinks on a maximum of five occasions per week (stated another way, a maximum of 3 in 3 or 2 in 5).

For women, moderation guidelines recommend no more than two drinks per occasion on no more than three occasions per week (2 in 3), or no more than one drink on a maximum of five occasions per week (1 in 5).

Moderation Management, a support group that seeks to help problem drinkers explore whether moderation is an achievable (and desired) goal, adds qualitative as well as quantitative aspects to the definition of moderate drinking:

A Moderate Drinker:

  • considers an occasional drink to be a small, though enjoyable, part of life.
  • has hobbies, interests, and other ways to relax and enjoy life that do not involve alcohol.
  • usually has friends who are moderate drinkers or nondrinkers.
  • generally has something to eat before, during, or soon after drinking.
  • usually does not drink for longer than an hour or two on any particular occasion.
  • usually does not drink faster than one drink per half-hour.
  • usually does not exceed the .055% BAC moderate drinking limit.
  • feels comfortable with his or her use of alcohol (never drinks secretly and does not spend a lot of time thinking about drinking or planning to drink).

A number of years ago, when I was working in a Drug and Alcohol counseling agency, I came across an essay that stuck with me. Its author – whose name has long since been relegated to the part of my brain where I forget things – argued that it was actually alcohol manufacturers and distributors who had the most to grain from promoting the notion of “alcoholism.”

To paraphrase the argument, if we as a society believe that there is a segment of our population – the alcoholics – who cannot and should not drink, and further believe based on our ‘alcoholic’ stereotype that we ourselves are not part of that segment, we are much less open to questioning our own relationship to alcohol, and honestly examining the ways it is helping us and/or hurting us.

And ultimately that’s what it comes down to. For those of us who choose to have alcohol in our lives at all, there’s a counterbalancing responsibility to be conscious and honest in assessing how it’s working in our lives. Leaving the issue of denial for another post, that means being aware of its impact on our physical health, relationships, emotional health, school or work, legal standing, etc., and ensuring that our valuing of alcohol isn’t compromising the other things in life we also value.