A familiar joke among men maintains that the husband should always have the last word in any confrontation, and that last word should be, “You’re right, honey. I’m wrong. I’m sorry and I’ll never do it again.”
The meaning of the joke is clear. Women are so difficult to engage with that it’s best for the poor husband to apologize just to keep the peace. It’s insulting to the woman because it suggests that she’s so unreasonable that it’s impossible to deal with her directly. It’s insulting to the man as well, because it assumes he can’t find his voice, or maybe he never had one to begin with. The backstory of the joke is that the purpose of an apology to a female partner is to escape a longer, unwanted conversation.
In contrast, we can choose to offer an apology—even when we think the disagreement is mostly not our fault—with a courageous intention. We may know that a real conversation will not take place until at least one person calms down, and so we may offer the olive branch to create a calmer emotional climate in which two people can begin to hear each other, or at least stay in the same room. We may say, “I’m sorry for my part in this,” without yet being clear about our contribution, but with goodwill and a commitment to think about it. Here our goal is to widen the path for intimacy over time, not to settle for a superficial and premature peace.
When you’re in the emotional soup, it may feel impossible to warm things up and apologize first. Any sort of “be positive” advice may make you want to gag because it doesn’t feel real. But here’s the paradox: Sometimes we can only learn what is real or possible by restraining our so-called “true self” and engaging in creative pretending.
In contrast to the “I’m sorry” in the apology joke, creative pretending is motivated by courage and a spirit of adventure—not by fear or the wish to avoid conflict at all costs.
Words like pretending have decidedly negative connotations for women, and for good reason. Many of us were encouraged to deny legitimate anger and protest, to please and protect men at the expense of the self, and to hold relationships in place as if our lives depended on it. We were taught to apologize for using up valuable oxygen in the room, and to wrap guilt and self-doubt around ourselves like an old familiar blanket.
No one aspires to be phony, or to hang out in a relationship where they can’t be real. Intimacy in family and friendship requires that we can deepen and refine the truths we tell each other, and that we can bring our full selves into the relationship. Yet there is nothing honest about a life lived on automatic pilot where doing what comes naturally will naturally go nowhere or make things worse. Indeed, changing how we habitually behave in any relationship often requires an initial willingness to pretend, to do something different that may at first feel nothing like being one’s true self.
An old Spanish proverb reminds us that habits are first silken threads and then become cables. Change is not easy, including for those who are actively pushing for it. Yet we are capable of surprising changes when we can no longer live with the status quo. The distancer can make a forceful effort to connect, to ask questions and listen with the intention to understand. The overtalker can practice brevity and leaving more space. The fix-it person can dial down the advice- giving, little corrections, and “I know-what’s-best” attitude. The rigid partner can learn to bend like grass, and the overly accommodating partner can learn to stand like an oak when something really matters.
I could make a longer list, but you get the idea. You need to be yourself and also to “try out a new you.” Without a spirit of adventure, you’ll be stuck with a narrow vision of who you are and what’s possible in your relationships. The best apologies are offered by people who understand that it is important to be one-self, but equally as important to choose the self that we want to be.