One of the common issues that I deal with in couples counseling is related to the aftermath of mistakes.

A spouse cheats

A spouse uses painful words like a scalpel to cut as deeply as possible.

An angry outbursts scares the bejezus out of a spouse

A secret offense is brought to light.

The list is quite long, and I am sure you could probably add two or two hundred things that you have experienced or heard of happening.

Invariably, the question posed to me is, "Why can't she get over it?" or "Why can't he just move on? I said, I was sorry. I feel bad about it."

Often this comes across as defensive to the offended spouse and even to me as a counselor. The following are some steps that I believe are helpful in repairing broken relationships.

1. Leave all the but's in the barn.

You've heard this one before, "I am sorry, I feel bad that I did that, but…." Invariably, an accusation or degradation for the spouse follows that but. Here's the problem, when you say I'm sorry but___________, it sounds like you aren't really all that sorry. It sounds like you're wanting to make sure that your spouse gets some of the blame too.  It sounds like your saying the adult equivalent of the four year old, "She did it too" defense. It's silly. It's shallow. And it is not helpful. If you messed up, own that. Don't try to deflect blame. Don't try to pass it off to your spouse. Just admit that what you did was wrong. No one made you do it. We control our own actions. What is interesting to me is that when someone commits to this idea of actually owning their own mistakes, thier spouse will often start admitting their own errors.

2. Double down on your patience level

If you have done something that has damaged trust in the relationship there is absolutely nothing you can do that will "fix it." You may have to answer a lot of questions. You may have to answer the same questions more than once. You may have to answer questions that don't seem relevant to you but matter immensely to your spouse.

3. Check your ego at the door.

I suspect that I get the most push back on this one. If you are the offending party, you gave up all of your "rights" by acting out. No, I don't think you'll need to pay for the rest of your life but I find that most people don't want to pay at all. Too often they want to just act out and hit a reset button. That only works in video games. Marriage requires that you die to yourself. When you are working on repairing a marriage it requires it all the more.

4. Invite Accountability

If you cheated, your life now becomes an open book. If you lost your temper, whatever find someone who can help hold you accountable. Not judge you but truly hold you accountable. Help you come up with a plan for the next time this temptation comes your way. Set yourself up for success.

5. Get the help you need.

This will allow you to understand what is really happening. What are the issues behind the issues? There is no weakness in admitting we need help and if it helps us to save our marriage, to have relationships that truly excel, we must pursue it. One of the best ways to ensure that a behavior will be corrected is to seek professional help regarding it. To really lean into it, examine it and make changes you may need someone to help you.

I think this list is a good start. It's not the end all. It's probably not complete but it's definitely a start.

What about you? What would you add to the list? Is there something you would take away?

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  1. I liked the “reset button” metaphor. In more than just interpersonal relationships, I have wished for such a feature on my life. I would also like to be able to “save” right before I take a risk.
    Anyway, good stuff. I think I’ll read it to my students when I teach the “interpersonal communication” portion of my class. Do you think you could write a follow up talking to the person who was wronged? 5 might be the same.

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