So often in divorce and separation, we realize that one or more of the actions we have taken have made an already difficult situation worse. The mistake has already been made — perhaps blunder is a more descriptive term — and now we need to deal with it.
We’ll first look at how our nature leads us to deal with mistakes. And we’ll think about how we can respond in a more direct, positive, and fundamental way to our own mistakes.
When I make a mistake, my natural reaction is to avoid responsibility for it.
- It didn’t happen.
- If it happened, it’s not a problem.
- If it happened and it’s a problem, I didn’t do it.
- If it happened and it’s a problem and I did it, it’s not as bad as it looks.
- If it happened and it’s a problem and I did it and it’s bad, what else do you expect from me when I’m so overworked, underpaid, and unappreciated?
In short, I’ll do anything to avoid admitting that I made a mistake, that I am responsible for harm done to others.
In divorce and separation, and in life in general, we can often deal more effectively with mistakes by confronting them directly, acknowledging the harm we’ve caused, taking corrective action, and asking for forgiveness.
I cannot deal effectively with a mistake I’ve made until I know what caused it. I need to ask lots of questions, of both myself and others, until I’m confident I understand all the following:
- Why did I do this? What made me behave the way I did?
- Is there another person who steered me wrong? How? What did they say or do? Why did I trust them?
- Did my organization contribute in any way to the mistake?
- Did my family and/or friends contribute in any way to the mistake?
- Was anything clouding my mind (like alcohol or other drugs, or some kind of obsession)?
As I go through this process I must be brutally honest with myself so I understand what happened. At the same time, however, and paradoxically, I must be tenderly compassionate with my own weakness. I may have to remind myself that I am a fundamentally good person who made a mistake, not just a perennial screw-up who can’t be trusted.
The hardest part about taking time to understand in the wake of my mistake is learning to listen. I must listen quietly, intently, and openly. I must learn to embrace silence. Often the statement that follows silence is the real “ouch” that someone feels. I need to leave silence alone! I need to let it work for me and not fill it up. I need to just listen.
The best way I can respond to criticism is to restate it to show the other person I really heard it. This is me they’re talking about, and I will have an almost irresistible impulse to jump to my own defense. I must resist. Only as I listen openly and non-defensively can I truly begin to understand the mistake I have made.
One of the quickest and most direct ways to deal with a mistake I have made is to do what I can to fix it.
- Can I put it back?
- Can I replace it?
- Can I repair it?
- Can I pay for it?
- If I have said the wrong thing, can I clarify it?
Nothing relieves the pain caused by a mistake quite so effectively as a genuine and unconditional apology. There is simply no way to state strongly enough what a difference it can make in relationships, even marriages that are ending.
The problem with most apologies is what I call “CPI.” That is, they’re too often Cheap, Premature, and Incomplete. What do you hear from these apologies: “I’m sorry if I hurt you.” “Whatever it was that I did, I apologize.” ?
Here are some simple principles that I can apply to make an apology more meaningful. Fair warning, though: just because the principles are simple doesn’t make them easy to apply. We’re talking about what for most of us is fundamentally different behavior, and changing behavior always feels awkward and uncomfortable at first.
I also should point out that I am borrowing liberally from the ideas of Ken Sande, the author of The Peacemakers. Thanks, Ken, for all your good work in this area.
- I need to understand first, then apologize. I know how this works. But it’s devilishly difficult to do. Among other things, it may mean that I have to slow down before apologizing, to make sure I really understand what has happened and what part I played in it.
- I need to talk to everybody involved. It’s not enough that I apologize to the person I insulted. I need to apologize as well to the persons who heard what I said, even if they heard it from someone else. See what we mean about awkward and uncomfortable?
- I need to be specific. Now that I’ve taken the time to understand what I did, I know what caused me to behave the way I did, and I know how the things I said and did have hurt other people. I need to describe that so it’s clear that I understand my mistake.
- I need to apologize unambiguously. I need to say I’m sorry, and I need to be careful not to qualify it at all. That’s why “I’m sorry if I hurt you” is so unsatisfying. We may mean it as “I don’t know what I’ve done, but I apologize.” It’s easy, however, to hear it as “I wish you weren’t so thin-skinned.”
- I need to describe how my mistake has affected me. Remember, I can only do this effectively when I’ve followed the first rule, which is to understand first, then apologize. Once I understand what I did, I probably know what the consequences are likely to be for me. I may realize, for example, that someone I care about deeply has trouble trusting me now. If so, I need to describe that as part of my apology.
- I need to describe the steps I’m taking to avoid similar mistakes in the future. As I do so, I need to concentrate on actual behaviors that the other person should be able to observe. And then I need to actually do what I said I would.
- I need to affirm myself. I don’t think I’m the kind of person who sets out to hurt people, and I need to say so. I need to state in clear and explicit terms that I think I’m a better person than this behavior would indicate. I need to describe how I plan to demonstrate that over the days and weeks ahead.
- I need to ask for forgiveness. But I don’t need to press for this quickly. For reasons set out below, I may even need to ask the other person explicitly not to forgive me too quickly so that forgiveness, when given, will be complete.
If the problem with apologies is CPI — that they’re too often Cheap, Premature, and Incomplete, what would you think would be the problem with most forgiveness? You’re right: just like apologies, forgiveness is too often Cheap, Premature, and Incomplete.
True forgiveness is about as difficult as it can be. It can’t come until I can make and keep these three promises:
- I won’t talk about this with other people.
- I won’t bring it up with you.
- I won’t think about it.
These promises are easy to make, and devilishly difficult to keep. That’s why they don’t need to be rushed.
Does that mean we should repeatedly forgive someone who repeatedly hurts us and earnestly apologizes each time? Remember, I don’t need to rush into forgiveness. When I am truly ready to forgive, and I say so, I need to be prepared to make and keep the three promises.
Mistakes are wonderful – if painful – teachers. They won’t help us, though, if we can’t learn from them. I need to ask myself the following in the wake of my mistake:
- What have I learned technically? To use a mundane example, did I learn that if I don’t turn the oven down the toast might burn?
- What have I learned about my organization? Every organization functions differently, with different goals, different expectations, and different ways of seeing facts. The more I understand about what makes my organization different from others, the more effectively I can function in it and the more effectively I can help it progress.
- What have I learned about people? This one’s obvious.
- What have I learned about myself? Ditto.
I may actually want to write down what I’ve learned from my mistake. Doing so will help me clarify in my mind what I need to do differently. It can also be powerful to share that written list of what I have learned as part of the apology process itself.
People going through divorce are often fearful that their spouse or others may use against them later what they say as part of a specific apology. Their fear is reasonable.
This is a judgment call for you. You will have to weigh the certain benefit of a deliberate, thoughtful, specific apology against the risk that it might come back to haunt you later.
What is clear is that most persons going through divorce overestimate the impact that their own misconduct, or that of their spouse, will have on their divorce settlement. If you’re unsure of the impact in court of the information you’re considering sharing, visit with your attorney. Then you can make an informed decision.