How to Make a Relationship Last – Clean Up Distressing Incidents With Double Apologies

Dr. Heitler shared with us an email she recently sent to a couple she sees in couples counseling (names have been changed).   Her letter explains how to make a relationship last by clearing upsets with two-person apologies that convert mistakes into learning moments.


Greetings Jack and Jill,

After our session I continued to think about your marriage problems.  It occurred to me that it might be helpful for me to share my thoughts.

First, to Jill, I was struck during the marriage counseling session by your lovely newfound sense of calm.  You never appeared to be building up the head of steam that so often in the past has put you at risk for anger eruptions.  Bravo!

Second, to Jack, I felt your palpable increase in warmth toward Jill.  Bravo!  The affection you showed toward Jill indicate that you are really getting the idea of how to make a relationship last by giving forth positivity in words, tone of voice, smiles, and more.

Both of these shifts—toward staying more calm and toward sharing more positive feelings, seemed to me to be very positive directional changes.   Communication in marriage with calm and affectionate talking is a key predictor of marriage success.

At the same time, I was surprised, Jill, that you seemed unable to reciprocate Jack’s warmth with more relaxed, positive attitudes toward him.  My surprise prompted the thought I want to share with you now.

If I recall correctly, one of you had briefly mentioned that Jill’s apology midweek for an anger outburst, and her accompanying decision to stop “doing anger,” has been helpful for both of you.   At the same time, I am wondering if Jill’s blockage in being able to respond in kind to Jack’s increased affection has something to do with a missing piece in your recent mutual apology sequence.

An effective apology can be like a surgery.  After an upsetting incident that has caused significant emotional pain, a full apology can remove the pain and therefore play a vital role in how to make a relationship last.

Two features strike me about what needs to be included in the surgery-like apology procedures that enable couples to remove bad feelings that might otherwise grow like malignancies after upsetting incidents.

1) An apology needs to go all the way. That means it needs to go all the way from the first “I’m sorry” to the point of learning how to prevent a similar upset.  As I think I said in my book The Power of Two, to fully clean up distressed feelings an apology needs to include:

  1. Specificity: “I’m sorry about my ______.” That is, specify exactly what you did that you see now was mistaken.
  2. Non-intentionality: “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
  3. Clarification:  What was your miss – the mistake, misperception, misunderstanding, miscommunication, mishap, etc?  “I can see now that I mis_______ that _______.”
  4. Learning: What will you do differently next time to prevent a similar mishap from occurring again?  “In the future I will _____________when___________ .”

Jill, you did a great job of covering all four of these steps when you told Jack, “I’m so sorry about my anger outburst.  I didn’t mean to hurt you.  I can see now that I misunderstood what you were telling me.  I was feeling so fragile after my trip that I misperceived your attempt to be welcoming as some kind of warning.  Next time I’m feeling hypersensitive I need to trust your love instead of leaping to conclusions about what you’re actually saying.”

2) Apologies tend to feel lopsided unless they are what I call Double Apologies.

Jack, you voiced appreciation for Jill’s apology, which was helpful.

What was missing though was reciprocation with a parallel apology of your own.  “Jill,  I’m sorry that I didn’t reassure you with a welcome-back hug before I went on to tell you about the problems I’d had when you were away.  I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.  Next time you return from a trip I’ll know to give more time to showing you how happy I am to see you again before I start telling you about the problems I had when you were away.”

Mistakes can create hurt and resentment.  By contrast, when both parties each verbalize what they themselves seem to have contributed to an upset, the bad feelings get cleaned up.  Double apologies thus enable couples to turn moments of upset or dissension into opportunities for growth, learning, and enhanced positive feelings.

Jack, how would you feel about sharing with Jill insights about your mistake in the upset and what you might do differently in the future?

Jill, if Jack does his part to make this a double-apology process, and that releases again your affection for Jack, wow.  That’s how to make a relationship last even though from time to time everyone makes mistakes.

Meanwhile, have a good week.

Dr. Heitler