Arguments were an everyday occurrence in Mark Baxter's marriage. Out of frustration he came to me for marital counseling because he'd hit a brick wall trying to communicate with his wife, Jill.
"I don't get it," he complained. "Even when I tell Jill I'm sorry, it only leads to a bigger fight. I can't win!"
Mark meant well. He knew it was right to acknowledge a wrong. But usually when he told his wife, Jill, he was sorry, his words were empty, absent of regret. So when Mark "messed up," and would bring himself to tell his wounded wife he was sorry, Jill would say, "No, you're not!" Mark would counter, "Yes, I am!" Jill would shoot back, "You're not either!" and so would begin World War III in the Baxter home.
After listening to this latest outburst of Mark's frustration with his marriage, I said, "From this day on, don't say you're sorry any more."
Mark was startled. "What? You, of all people, my counselor, don't want me to say I'm sorry? I can't believe you! That'll go over real big with Jill!"
Sorrow isn't admission
In most cases, a sincere "I'm sorry" heals the wounded relationship. Closeness is restored. The relationship is able to move forward. But that's not always the case.
Psychologists agree that body language and tone of voice account for 93 percent of communication. Content comes in at a low 7 percent. Mark had a habit of rolling his eyes while adding a sarcastic edge to his words. While he was saying, "I'm sorry," his body language was screaming to Jill, "I'm not sorry." Since Mark doesn't rate high on the emotional expression scale, even if he made a special effort, he just couldn't muster a look of deep sorrow over his offense.1