When 'I don't know' is good enough

Reflect on this scene with me: Carrie has been dating Doug since their junior year in college. They are now getting ready to complete graduate school and start the next phase in their lives. She has been looking at wedding rings and dresses and making little comments, meanwhile, Doug is sweating bullets because he just isn’t sure. He has doubts about the timing, the quality of the relationship, his own ability to commit, etc.  Doug, after much heartache, decides to come clean with his Carrie that he is not on the same path as her. He says “I just don’t know” when she asks him if he wants to marry her. 

Next in this story, Carrie is bemoaning her fate to her friends and family. She immediately assumes he is cheating, not happy with what they have and wants to try to do better, that there is something wrong with her, or that he truly does know what he wants, he is just too scared to say it because it will hurt her feelings. What follows is a series of ultimatums, back and forth drama and lots of hurt feelings. Probably, I would guess, are all the things that Doug wanted to avoid. 

But what if Doug was telling his truth? He just really didn’t know? He wasn’t hiding something, in fact, he made a revelation that could have made the two come closer together, if Carrie could have soothed herself and accepted “I don’t know” as enough and not a reflection on her. 

So when did the revelation that a person is truly confused become not good enough as an answer? 

Authenticity and vulnerability are necessary in healthy relationships. They are foundations in healthy communication. And sometimes, when a person reveals themselves to be confused or unsure, why is this not celebrated as a step toward an authentic relationship?

This is because, in my opinion, that we, as human beings, make very little room for the unknown. Because when there is unknown, we can either stay present, open, mindful or fill in the gaps with our worst fears. Guess which one people usually do? 

Think about how we deal with uncertainty in other arenas…let’s say your child is uncertain about what breakfast she wishes to eat. Do you allow her the time to choose or do we pick for her, because you are in a rush? What about if your partner is unsure about the job path they wish to take. Do you allow them space for the unknown, or do you push for an answer?

Uncertainty makes people either want to avoid or fix, when in truth, the healthiest thing we can do for ourselves is to stay honest, open and present. Just to be. Allowing space for the unknown, that is, accepting the idea that some variables cannot be answered, is actually considered key in healing from issues such as trauma, anxiety and depression. 

How do we get to this personal nirvana? Well, mindfulness practice is one way. Mindfulness is defined as “a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.”

I could blog about mindfulness from now until infinity, but will begin by saying that spending time focusing on your five senses, allowing yourself to be present in this very moment, for a few minutes daily retrains your brain to respond to fearful stimuli with a deliberateness rather than reacting with knee-jerk words and behaviors. 

What if Carrie had been practicing mindfulness? Perhaps she could have responded to Doug by saying “This really scares me. I had all these plans that are being threatened. I don’t know what to do when I can’t plan my future so this is hard but thank you for being honest with me.” 

What would happen if YOU could practice mindfulness? When your work  your children’s lives, your spouse presents uncertainty. Maybe instead of backing away or forcing an outcome, maybe you could learn to be present in your body in that moment. Then what could happen?

“Depression lives in the past. Anxiety lives in the future. Peace, joy and calm live in the present." -Lao Tzu (Whitney’s version)

Whitney Warren Alexander, LMFT LADC, owns and operates the Warren Alexander Group, a group mental health practice serving Stillwater, OK and the surrounding communities. 

Love Means Learning How to Say I'm Sorry

So if vulnerability is indeed the birthplace of connection, a Brene’ Brown idea, I can think of no situation as a partner that is more vulnerable than saying that they are sorry. Truly sorry for something. Most of us don’t intentionally hurt those we love and, as a result, may not see the value in apologizing. People think ‘I didn't intend to hurt their feelings so they need to see that and get over their feelings.‘ Other people may find that apologizing to their partner in a sincere manner does not restore the relationship the way that they were hoping which is both confusing and disheartening.

Dr. Gary Chapman is a marriage counselor who wrote the book “The Five Love Languages.” His concepts about how people speak and understand love differently has helped many couples learn how to speak the language of connection that their partner does. If you are unfamiliar with his work, I highly recommend check his website and his ground-breaking book out. 

In his book co-authored with psychologist Jennifer Thomas, “When Sorry Isn’t Enough” the idea that not everyone says and understands the concept of being sorry in the same way has been instrumental in creating the stage for healing in relationships. 

Have you ever sincerely apologized to your partner and still feel “it” hanging between you? Do you believe that your partner almost never apologizes? Do you find it hard to let things go with your partner, even after they apologize? All these issues could be related to the five languages of apology. The languages are as follows:

Expressing Regret: In essence, this language is both saying “I’m sorry” and being sincere in this expression. Expressions of regret are NOT effective if done out of manipulation. As one partner once told me in counseling “I will apologize, but SHE has to do it too.” Nor is “I’m sorry” to be uttered to get what you want such as kinder treatment or sexual favor. In the examples below, note the sincerity and humility in the words.
Examples of Expression of Regret: 

I am truly sorry for how I spoke to you. I can see that my words hurt you, even if it was not my intention. 

I obviously was not thinking well at the time and, while it was not my intention to hurt you, I did. I am so sorry. 

I promised you that I would do the dishes before you came home and I dropped the ball. I am sorry.

Accepting Responsibility: this language means saying “I was wrong.” Wr-r--rrr-oo-n-g. Whew, that can be a tough one to put out there. Studies show that personalities with high desire for control struggle with this language. Consider the husband who said “My wife never admits when she is wrong. I know she feels bad because she makes my favorite meal the next day but I just wish she would say it!” People may choose to speak other languages instead of this one, but for someone who truly needs this language to heal and forgive their loved one, NOT saying “I was wrong” stands as an impediment to having the connection that they crave with their loved one. I was wrong takes some serious shame resilience. It means being able to acknowledge that you made a mistake without saying you are a bad person. One parent told me that when their son finally admits he is wrong he says “Fine, I was wrong. I am an idiot. You are perfect and I am stupid.” This is not truly accepting responsibility, it is merely an expression of anger and shame. 

Examples of Accepting Responsibility:

How I ended things between us last night was wrong. I just went to bed without saying a word to you. That was selfish and wrong. 

I realized that the words I said to you about your family were done in anger and were not appropriate. I need to learn a better way to communicate with you about things that make me angry instead of calling names. 

I repeated a mistake that we have talked about before. That was wrong of me. It was my fault. 

At the time, I was not aware of how my actions would affect you. Now that you shared your feelings with me and even though it was not my intention, I realize that I was in the wrong. What I did was not ok. 

Making Restitution: “How can I make this right?” The third language is the idea that the offender must make attempts to repair what was damaged. In this language, knowing your partner’s love language becomes important. To learn more about these languages, please visit www.5lovelanguages.com. I will blog about this concept at a later date. Essentially, what you need to know is that love is spoken and received in the form of a “language.” The five languages, identified by Dr. Gary Chapman are: Quality Time, Words of Affirmation, Physical Touch, Gifts, and Acts of Service. If you offend a person and their apology language requires you to make restitution, you will need to speak their love language to effectively do so. 

Bob and Jill came to therapy because of the way Jill treated Bob’s daughter from a previous marriage. After working through this issue in therapy, Jill stated that she thought Bob still had not forgiven her. She noted that she had apologized and admitted that she was wrong. She even had been using the tools she had been learning in therapy. Bob agreed that this was all true but that he could not completely forgive her and did not know why. After identifying Bob’s apology language as restitution, they next identified his love language as acts of service. The couple was able to identify ways that Jill could restore their relationship by offering to pick up her stepdaughter, take her on outings, help her with her chores or help her with her homework. Jill admitted she had been afraid to do this because she did not know how it would be received. After speaking both languages Bob, the matter was able to heal. 

Statements of Restitution:

What can I do to make up for what I have done?

I have broken this promise to you before. Would you like me to put it in writing?

Can we make a plan to restore what I have taken from you? What do you think would be fair?

I realize that my words were hurtful in that meeting. Please allow me to send out an email to the attendants to admit my wrong doing and set things straight. 

Genuinely Repenting: saying “I want to change.” The word repentance has significant religious overtures. However, it truly means “to turn around” or “To change one’s mind.” It is more than saying you are wrong or offering to fix things, it is about agreeing to not make that mistake again. 

In cases where a partner consistently offends their partner by doing or not doing something, the repetition of the same mistake negates any apologies that are given, even in sincerity. “I truly do not mean to do it again,” said one husband who loses his temper and yells, “but when I do it again, I see something die inside of her.” 

Sometimes, the apologies are not sincere. “I mean yeah, sometimes when I drink I act like an idiot. But I was like that when she married me. She should just accept the apology and go on,” said John. Do you think this person is going to change? Doubtful.

The most important steps to note about repentance is that the person apologizing MUST be sincere and want to change and they must make a plan for change. 

After one particularly bad incident, John finally agreed that he needed to change his drinking behavior. He spoke the words his wife had been wanting to hear for years, “I need to change. But I don’t know how.” They agreed to have John get an assessment by a substance abuse professional and follow the therapist’s recommendations. Now this couple can begin to heal. 

Not knowing HOW to change is the easiest problem to fix. As a therapist, I can supply a lot of ideas as can pastors, books, websites, etc. What an outside program or helping professional cannot supply is the desire or willingness to change. That must come within a person. With this language, the fear of failing often causes one to not embark on the journey. It is important to note that the concept is “progress not perfection” is what is needed. 

Statements of Genuine Repentance:

How could I say that in a way that doesn't come across as critical?

I know that what I am doing is not helpful. What can I change to make this situation better?

This pattern has been around for a long time. I truly want to change but know I may fall down at times. I would really appreciate it if we could come up with a way to stick with my changes and encourage me as I go along. Can you be my teammate on this?

Would it be ok if we came up with some sort of code word to make me aware of when I am doing this again? I want to be a good partner and might need help at first recognizing when I am disappointing you. 

Requesting Forgiveness: stating “Can you forgive me?” Of all the languages, this one seems the most vulnerable. Mostly because you are humbling yourself and have no control over how the offended person responds. Seeking forgiveness verbally sends the message that you truly want the relationship to be healed, that you recognize you did something wrong and that you are willing to give the future of the relationship into the hands of the person offended. 

No other language creates the amount of fear quite like requesting forgiveness. This is likely why many people do not do it. One couple worked on healing their relationship after the wife gambled away thousands of dollars in therapy. She was repentant, accepted responsibility and genuinely regretful of her behaviors. She sought to make restitution whenever possible. But her intense shame over her actions made saying “Will you forgive me?” a difficult task. After much work, she was finally able to move from shame to guilt and ask her husband to forgive her for the betrayal. This was exactly what he needed to hear. 

Examples of Requesting Forgiveness:

I am so sorry for how things turned out between us over this situation. I know I did not handle things appropriately. Will you forgive me?

You have every right to be angry with me and to never speak with me again. I value you and our friendship. Can you find it in your heart to forgive me?

I would like to encourage people to read this book. It has been an eye opener to the healing connection of apologies and has revolutionized by work with couples. If we could sum up all the languages together, it might look something like this: “I am sorry. I was wrong. I want to change and I also want to make amends. Will you forgive me?” The question I would like to leave you with is, what is more important: your pride, or your relationship? Are you standing in the way of your own healing? 

“To share your weakness is to make yourself vulnerable; to make yourself vulnerable is to show your strength.” 
― Criss Jami 

Whitney Warren Alexander is a Licensed Marital and Family Therapist and a Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor in private practice in Stillwater, Oklahoma. She specializes in working with couples. Examples of stories published in her blogs are used from her practice with permission and names are changed to protect confidentiality.