My wife was reading my New Years 2019 email I sent out and within seconds she says to me, “Well, the first thing I’m noticing is a missing word.”
“Son of a bitch!” was my response. Not at her, of course, just out of frustration. She laughed. My girlfriend was in a chair next to me reading the same email and let me know that she missed it. Her brain just filled in the missing word. The brain’s efficiency and predictive factor worked in my favor that day! :)
This wasn’t that big of a deal, of course. I’ve made spelling and grammar mistakes before and this won’t be the last time. Small mistakes are easy to take responsibility for and avoid negative self-talk over. But what about mistakes that aren’t so small? Ones that can negatively impact your life and relationship in powerful ways? Ones that have broken trust? What then?
It’s easy to fall into a shame spiral. The negative self-talk can be deafening at times:
‘How could you do that?’
‘You knew better than this!’
‘They won’t love you anymore’
‘They’re going to leave you’
And then there’s your partner’s feelings and words that may not be the most helpful or sensitive because they’re hurting. And understandably so, but it doesn’t make it easier. Besides, who can be more critical of our mistakes than we can? That shame spiral and self-flagellation won’t help, though, so let’s talk about what will!
The first step it the hardest but most vital: Be rigorously honest with yourself. Did you know what you were doing would negatively affect your relationship? If you didn’t, now you do. If you knew, what caused you to do it anyway? Why was this act important despite the problems it would cause?
Second, when your partner is ready to hear it, apologize. Depending on the nature of the mistake, your partner may not be ready to hear your apology right away and that’s ok. They are processing their emotions about it just like you are processing yours.
A good apology includes a recognition of the wrong act, why it was wrong, and an expressed desire to make it right in the moment. It is delivered with heartfelt sincerity and includes liberal use of phrases like:
I was wrong
I didn’t mean to hurt you
A good apology does not include sarcasm, passive-aggression, blaming, or phrases like:
I’m sorry you’re hurt
I only did this because you…
Finally, the desire to change behavior. Different than the desire to make it right in the moment, this is the desire to change behavior so the mistake doesn’t happen again. This is not just for big mistakes, too, but small ones as well. Changed behavior after a mistake is a signal to your partner. It says, “I love you, I understand, I hear you, and want to grow with you.”
This is not to say that all changes will be instant, easy, or effortless. You could have a habit that once served you in the past that no longer is. Your mistake can be one born out of trauma, abuse, or just poor modeling of relationships. These things take time, and your partner will likely understand that, but that doesn’t let you off the hook. It explains, but does not excuse.
So your change in behavior can be as simple as setting an alarm on your phone or calendar so you don’t forget an appointment in the future. Or it could be something more significant like going to therapy to deal with trauma or anger issues. The amount of effort required will increase with the magnitude of the mistake. Forget to take the chicken out of the freezer for dinner? Well, that can be fixed with a reminder on your phone. Forget an ultrasound appointment for the third time, though, and you’re gonna have to do a lot of work to show your partner that you’re going to be there for your family.
Few mistakes you can make are instant relationship killers. What I more often see is a pattern of behavior over time that leads to the demise of a relationship. Which is really good news if you’re struggling in yours, whether it’s an intimate relationship, family member, or friend, they’re usually repairable. All it takes it people committed to putting the work in, either on their own or with a coach.
May your errors be few and your healing be plentiful!
Be excellent to each other,