8. Owning Your Mistakes
Updated: Jul 26, 2019
Nobody is perfect… but that doesn’t make owning your mistakes any easier.
But owning your mistakes is not only the right thing to do, it’s also a key opportunity to create intimacy and closeness. That may sound counterintuitive, and it doesn’t mean let yourself be careless in your relationship, it just means that for any harm that mistakes might do, might as well also have them do good.
When we make a mistake, it’s usually because we lost control of a situation or ourselves, for example losing your temper and lashing out at your spouse.
The way to regain control of either situation is to first own the mistake, usually with an apology:
“I’m sorry I lashed out at you.”
No Buts About It
The key to owning a mistake is taking complete responsibility for it: “I’m sorry that I [insert action here].” No excuses, no justification, no buts, it’s yours. You own it.
It’s tempting to say “I’m sorry that I [insert action here] but you… [insert reason here].” but then you’re only owning half of the mistake and imposing the rest of the blame on your spouse
Let’s say Wendy recently spilled a cup of hot tea on the floor and lashed out at her husband brad, who had recently mopped it without telling her.
To respond reactively in this scenario, as Wendy did when she lashed out at Brad, is essentially getting angry at her husband for volunteering to clean the kitchen. It’s then more than easy for Brad to get defensive, and then resentment builds, and things go downhill.
But not all is lost.
Even if the damage is done and Wendy lashed out and that started a fight, she can make up for lost ground by owning the mistake of lashing out. In turn, this might encourage Brad to reciprocate and own his mistake of not warning anybody about the wet floor!
So Wendy goes to her husband later and says “I’m sorry I lashed out at you, you don't deserve to be spoken to that way.”
Even though Wendy can’t control where when her husband mops the kitchen she’s still able to take ownership of the mistake and therefore the situation.
And now she can have an honest conversation with Brad, who likes a clean kitchen and regularly volunteers to clean it. This mistake created a great opportunity for her to tell him how much she appreciates what he does, but could he please leave a note warning her of a wet floor so she doesn’t spill tea all over his hard work?
Hard to say no to that.
Using Forgiveness to Recruit Allies In Fighting Problems, Not Each Other
It’s important to own mistakes so that you can recruit allies in diagnosing and solving the problem, rather than making or keeping enemies and adversaries.
Sure, you can have an honest conversation about things that are bothering you at any time, and proactive people do try to have those conversations before blowing up at each other as much as possible. But no matter how self-aware we are, there are bound to be pet peeves that sneak up on us and there are bound to be times when we make mistakes.
And when our partner makes a mistake, we can see that as an opportunity to solve a problem with them rather than find a problem about them.
For example, when Wendy lashed out at Brad, he can be reactive and snap back, or he can be proactive and understand that this moment is about bringing a problem to his attention, not starting a fight.
After Wendy owns her mistake and apologizes for it, they can move on to figuring out what’s really bothering her.
It’s best to avoid fighting if you can, because it’s painful when someone lashes out at you, and you never know how much damage those moments can cause.
But mistakes and conflict are inevitable in every relationship. The goal is to minimize the damage by being proactive, and creating a positive experience out of them by owning your mistakes. That’s the best that anyone can do.
Think of The Example You Set
Even mental health professionals face the same exact challenges in their marriages and with raising families as everyone else:
“I once went to a mental health conference with some of my best colleagues. The last part of the conference was about parenting and the speaker was speaking about the dangers of couples arguing in front of their children.
As I got into the car with some of my colleagues, the session had me thinking deeply about that last part and about my own children. At one point I turned off the radio and asked the car of mental health professionals, “how many of us have blown it and fought with our spouses at one time or another in front our kids?”
We all agreed it was a bad thing to do, but from time to time we would make that mistake. I turned on the radio again and continued driving, but there was still something nagging me. Soon I turned the radio off again and asked: "So all of us admit blowing it in front of our children and fighting with our spouse; how many of us ever apologized in front of our children?"
None of us including myself ever had. Why not? What a missed opportunity. How powerful of a lesson would it be, that after my spouse and I work through the argument, to be able to say in front of my kids. "I’m sorry I yelled at you honey, I was out of line.”
And for my spouse to accept the apology. The idea that we can make mistakes and own them would be an awesome lesson for our kids. Now my wife and I make a point not only to work through our arguments, own our mistakes, forgive ourselves and each other, but we do it openly so that our children know how to do it”
Think of how your children will grow up if they’re used to being part of a family that knows how to own mistakes and if this comes second nature to them. They’ll be sure to develop meaningful and healthy relationships throughout their lives from mastering these skills, and so will you!