There is an idea in our modern understanding of human feelings called reciprocal altruism. This basically means that people, consciously or unconsciously, keep score with others regarding times that a kindness is shown, a favor is done and so on. If about as many good things are done in both directions, the relationship feels balanced, fair and good. Friends and loved ones are people with whom our scores are likely about even. We do good things for people who do good things for us.
Trouble comes when the scores are out of balance. On the other hand, we feel used if we do good things for someone who does not return the favors, especially when it is seen as a possible pattern. This can and often does lead to the end of the relationship with that person- whether a friend or a spouse.
This issue is particularly true of people in a marriage. One of the items on the marital scoreboard is apologies. The problem is that sometimes a spouse is in some way harmed and might even believe that it is the other spouse’s fault. This is especially true when the other spouse genuinely believes that he or she did not do anything wrong. If the other spouse recognizes that he or she has done something wrong, that spouse can rebalance the scoreboard. That spouse can apologize and perhaps make amends to make up for the harm. However, what happens when the other spouse does not believe that he or she did anything wrong or is responsible for causing the harm?
For many people, offering an apology feels like an admission of guilt, and often it is. However, there is another important type of apology. We can feel bad for our spouse, even when we do not feel guilty, and we can apologize, because we feel bad for our spouse. This is not an admission of guilt, but rather because we just do not like to see our spouse hurt or upset. More naturally, we do this with our children. A child is hurt when we restrict them for doing something wrong. We therefore say, “I am really sorry that happened and that you feel bad.” In fact, we might have caused the hurt but not feel guilty because what we did was actually good parenting.
In many situations, one spouse might blame the other spouse for causing a hurt, and believe that they are owed an explanation and an apology. The accused spouse might not believe that he or she caused the hurt and does not like being pressured into apologizing, because that seems like an admission of guilt. However, that reaction is irrelevant to making an apology, because it is based on caring, not guilt. In other words, a caring response is to apologize.
If the spouse keeps expecting an admission of guilt, the conversation can continue and might even lead to a deeper understanding of one another. (However, a word of caution; the conversation might become destructive, especially if continued in an unhealthy way.)
Moving on with an example, assume that a wife becomes upset because she sees her husband at a social event flirting with a beautiful woman. He and the woman are laughing and making suggestive remarks. Assume that the man does not believe that he was flirting, but was simply having a good time making jokes with the woman. Later, when he finds out that his wife is very upset, he apologizes. This was not as an admission of guilt, but out of caring for her and not liking or wanting to see her hurt. However, she wants to know why he was flirting and if he flirts other times when she is not around. He can explain this by telling her he was not flirting, but that he feels bad that she took it that way and is sorry. In a healthy relationship, this might lead to the wife exploring her own insecurities and gain more confidence in the marriage. Rather than focus on why he flirted and is lying about it, she could ask herself, why she reacted that way when he was not really flirting.
In our book, The Road to Marital Success is Unpaved: Seven Skills for Making Marriage Work, we point out the importance of spouses developing the skill and reputation that they are always honest with one another. In our example, fortunately the ending can be a healthy one, but only if the wife trusts that the husband is being completely honest. In addition, the wife can explore her insecurities with her husband. Perhaps the end of this discussion might be, when she tells him: “Well, she was sure flirting with you,” and have a good laugh.
Apologizing, when it might suggest an admission of guilt which is not heartfelt, is an example of one of the important skills to practice in a marriage: being vulnerable. The fear of being out of control when the apology is made, where the other spouse might think you are admitting guilt, makes you vulnerable. This is very beneficial, because being vulnerable ultimately leads to confidence and security. The willingness to explore core feelings, which the wife does in our example, is also an important skill in a marriage. Had she remained defensive and angry at her husband, she would have to infer that he was flirting and is lying about it, driving a wedge between them.
Other blogs on our website explore the skill of being vulnerable from different points of view. Here our point is that apologizing, not out of guilt, but out of caring, keeps the emotional score in a marriage close to even.