It seems so easy to me, apologizing, or taking something back that I shouldn't have said. That sense of my bad is so jarring, so upsetting. There's baggage to it, triggers (if something feels bad it is because something else is at work). Someone is mad at me, someone doesn't like me. So to get rid of the baggage someone like me will be quick to own responsibility for messing up. It feels easy, like removing a finger from a hot burner on the stove.
That's when we're aware. We're all like this to some degree. When we know, when we're aware of the feelings of others and that they will ricochet back to hurt us, we're motivated to reverse the damage. We'll say, I'm sorry.
But as the good doctor/rabbi Peter Rosenzweig likes to say, about 99% of what is happening around us isn't available to us, it's unconscious.
Or maybe it was 95%. You get the idea.
The interesting thing about the subject of apologies is that we know there are people who cannot do it, cannot bring themselves to apologize, which makes doing couple therapy a bit of a challenge. Why? For some it feels like others should be apologizing to them, should be working harder to understand them, to feel their pain. Owning responsibility is exactly what some of us want others to do for us-- feel our pain. If only you would only empathize with me, you'd get it! You first.
When I notice that going on (and it is sometimes even spoken) in therapy I might say:
(Name of pt). You have lived without that understanding this long, live without it a little longer just for today's visit. Let's get you into the position of modeling the behavior for your partner. One way to do that is to apologize first, say you are aware that you might have hurt her (him) and that you are sorry. See if it doesn't come back to you in a good way.
We would call that secondary gain, There's just something about saying, I did that. It ends up feeling okay-- you aren't punished-- crazy, I know. You feel like there will be some kind of punishment, but there is not.
This process is psycho-educational, and for some, it works. If therapists can help partners feel the pain of one another they are half-way there.
We could call that an intervention, labeling the pain of the one who can't apologize. But it will not always work. There are other interventions, and we'll get to them in a second, but I'm wondering about the corollary of my first paragraph. Does what I wrote mean that people who don't take responsibility and/or don't apologize are not worried about social rejection? Does it mean that pride, a type of blinder, shields all of us from social rejection? As if I'm right, so you must be wrong, nothing in-between. No need to apologize.
What's a therapist to do? Here are a few more thoughts, interventions:
(1) Chip away at the pride, or insecure narcissism-- that might be one option--The therapist says: Well what if you aren't correct? I think it would be helpful here, in the interest of empathizing and improving your relationship, for you to try on the idea of What if I'm not right? What happens then?
This isa favorite intervention, although they're all good, because it forces people to face that catastrophic expectation, the consequences of being wrong, which in most situations are anything but catastrophic, and in fact, are benign.
(2) The therapist asks the partner to ask the other partner to do that-- that's good except that he or she has probably done it before without success, and that's the response I tend to get back
(3) The therapist explores the idea that they are both right and it is their challenge to find out how that could be true
(4) The therapist switches from content to feelings, simply do an emotional check-up-- how upset are you, and how upset are you, and what's weighing in on those feelings
(5) The therapist asks them who else they know who agrees with them and have they been talking about this topic with other people, and could that be affecting how strongly they are attached to being right or wrong
(6) The therapist asks, "In the past, how important was it for a parent or sibling to be right?"
(7) The therapist asks, "Has substance abuse made you feel either (a) always wrong, or (b) always right-- because according to the program. . . the program teaches. . . "
Not a complete list, for sure. But it's a start.
Maybe I'm wrong about the whole thing.