If you have a teenager who does something you don't like and you call them on it, they may reflexively say they are sorry. Will they do it again? Highly likely. Why not? We should always be suspicious of an apology that is said faster than the person saying it can process why you are upset with them.
How do you feel after hearing your spouse's apology? Probably not so reassured. Your spouse may have those same doubts when you say that you are sorry. After all, although those words are very important, they are symbolic of a much larger idea. They are not a magical incantation which will erase all memories of what you did or said. So, let's take a look at some ideas that will make your efforts at contrition more effective.
To start, here are 3 reasons why we say we are sorry:
1. You did or said something hurtful. By admitting to this, you acknowledge the legitimacy of your spouse's feelings. You have validated their worth.
2. Even though you don't think that you did anything wrong, you feel bad for how your spouse feels and your apology is meant to convey loving support.
3. You do not know how to safely express hurt feelings with each other. After frustrations have built up, you blurt how you feel. Then you apologize because anger is too threatening in your relationship. A small release of frustration, but no overall improvement in the relationship.
Let's look at these reasons in more detail:
1. If you think that you have done something that is wrong, you need to resolve not to do so again. Yes, we all make mistakes. But after your admission, you should try to figure out how you will avoid repeating your mistake if that same situation will recur.
This is also an opportunity to learn more about your partner. Why were they upset? What else might you want to change so as to be more respectful of their needs?
Lastly, you can then better understand why you didn't anticipate the impact your actions/words would have. Were you not paying attention? Did you not take enough interest in their world? Were you perhaps just being insensitive and maybe there are other areas where you need to become more aware of yourself?
On the other hand, if you meant to hurt your partner, was this an attempt to draw their attention to an issue that you weren't sure how to address? If so, after the apology, you both need to examine the issue(s) that motivated you. This can become an opportunity to improve your marriage. Unresolved issues don't just disappear.
2. You apologized not out of a sense of having done something wrong, but rather out of a desire to show your support. That's fine. Unless you should be sorry. If you enter into a situation where your spouse thinks that you are not being sufficiently considerate then you need to discuss this matter in depth. Why do you each think the way you do? There is a good chance that at least one of you is not sufficiently attuned to the other. This could be a great time to improve your connection.
3. Frustrations are normal in any marriage. They need to be acknowledged and dealt with. If this is something that you are unable or unwilling to do in your relationship, you will always be walking on eggshells. Is your marriage really so tenuous? Are you about to go your separate ways? If not, then why are you so afraid to speak up? What motivates the two of you to avoid conflict?
If you are able to sit down, there will probably be a long list of items that need to be addressed. But I would suspect that the core issues go way back, perhaps even to childhood where it was not safe to express how you really felt. If this is so, you may need to pursue therapy to help figure this out and move forwards.
Your first rule together is to assure each other of your mutual love and commitment (assuming you mean it). Then you can start to share and reassure each other along the way as you recognize the issues in your marriage that are creating problems. Having a difference of opinion is OK. You can disagree but still be respectful and loving. That realization would be a major step forwards for the two of you.
Relationships challenge us to grow. If you hear yourself apologizing, it's time to start wondering: why?