partner thinking about divorce or breaking up

How to Apologize for Saying the Wrong Thing to Your Spouse

There is a simple method for taking back something we said and making things positive again.

apologize for saying the wrong thing
Apologize, correct the mistake, and get back on track

The right words matter

The wrong words or, lack of right words, are a major source of damage in relationships. Clarity and understanding are less important than love and connection.

An overemphasis on clarity and understanding can damage your relationship. On the other hand, love and connection never will. To be good at relationships it’s important to be clear and loving at the same time.

The biblical principle is not only to speak the truth, but to speak the truth in love.

Some people get so focused on what they want that they forget that they need to say things in a way that will help them to connect. Connecting is, by the way, the best way to get what you want from your spouse.

Sometimes we mess up even when we know better

It’s hard saying things right the first time, isn’t it? Although you may have learned some better ways to say things from books or from your relationship coach, your words may tend to pop out of your mouth the old way–frustrating both you and your spouse. 

But, no one can change their habits quickly or easily, no matter how much they want to. What do you do then, when you slip up and say things the wrong way?

Catch your slip up as quickly as you can

When you first start learning to communicate better, you may not notice you slipped up until you see the upset reaction from your spouse. But, as you practice more, you will start to catch yourself before your statement has completely left your mouth.

Let’s take an example of poor communication

Suppose you are working on making positive requests rather than complaining. That you are working on that is excellent as just this one change can really help your relationship. We are always going to get treated better by others when they like us, and that includes our spouse.

However, since you are not so good at your new behavior yet, you get triggered by your spouse and say the wrong thing out of habit. Perhaps your spouse is late and you say, “Why can’t you ever come home on time?” Of course that’s not what your spouse wants to hear and you see the defensive look on your spouse’s face, then you realize your goof.

Apologize and ask permission to try again

Before your spouse has a chance to say anything, put up your hand to stop him or her and ask, “I’m sorry, can I try that again?” Your spouse may be glaring at you at that moment, but ignore that. Then say what you should have said the first time. Since we always want our spouse to look forward to seeing and being with us, it should be something nice.

For this example, you might say, “I’m glad your home, I missed you,” accompanied by a friendly look. You can even give a hug if it would be welcomed by your spouse. Your spouse may respond positively, negatively, or not at all. That’s okay. Remember that you have to be consistent before you can expect your spouse to let his or her guard down and start to respond in a friendly way.

After using this do-over method a few times in the following weeks, you will discover a couple of things. First, it will become much easier to say the nice thing the first time. Secondly, your spouse will start responding more nicely to you. 

I can hear your question for me, so let me answer it

Many people will want to know if they are just supposed to let their spouse do bad things without saying anything about it. The answer is yes and no.

The correct steps for relationship building are to first stop our own bad behavior, then help our spouse to enjoy our relationship more, and lastly to use good boundaries to stop our spouse’s continuing bad behaviors.

So, we do let the our spouse get away with it while we are working on ourselves. But when we have done that, then we will address our spouse’s behavior.

Jesus Christ, said it this way, . . . first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:5, NIV).

As I like to teach my clients, even when we only have a speck in our eye and our spouse has a plank, we still need to deal with our speck first.

So, when working on saying the right things rather than the wrong ones, don’t be too concerned about what your spouse is doing. You will get to those problems when your spouse likes you more. If you do that, your boundaries will be more effective and fewer will be necessary. God always knows what He is talking about.

(Okay, now we can get back to the topic at hand . . . .)

Don’t be shy about asking to re-say something

Most people will accept a replayed comment, whether they are your boss, your kids, your clients, or your spouse. They can see you recognize you said something badly. They have also had the same kind of problem as you at one point in their life or perhaps they still do. Your willingness to correct yourself and be the bigger person will earn you some respect.

We don’t earn respect by being perfect. We earn respect by admitting to, and taking responsibility for, our mistakes.

This method is better than just saying, “I’m sorry”

After you say, “I’m sorry” a couple of times, it stops having much of an impact on people. They figure that if you were really sorry, you would change. The instant replay method goes beyond “I’m sorry” and provides a correction.

The next time you slip up (and if you are human, you will), say, “Wait. Let me try that again.” And find a nicer way to say whatever it is.

What if you don’t realize it until later?

Suppose you didn’t realize what you said was bad until it was brought to your attention later. You can still do the same thing. Apologize for being thoughtless, mean, selfish, or just focused on the wrong priority. Then ask your spouse to let you say it again the way you should have said it before.

If your spouse refuses, then don’t keep apologizing. Repeated apologies are a needy behavior that result in worse relationships. Just work on saying it better the next time.

Be sure not to defend your bad statement

Defending your own bad behavior is actually a way to invalidate your spouse for being upset. We connect through validation, not by explanation.

Example of defending through explanation:

  • I’m sorry I said that, it’s just that you have done such and such so many times… (or)
  • I’m sorry I said that, I didn’t get much sleep last night…

Also, don’t say you are working on improving and don’t promise to do better next time. Those are also needy behaviors which will create false expectations in your spouse. Because the truth is, you will mess up again. Having promised to work on it will make your spouse more upset when you do mess up.

Secure behavior is working on improving ourselves. Needy behavior is promising to work on ourselves. Improvement leads to better relationships. Promises eventually lead to more conflict.

If you tend to give lots of explanations, you can boost your relationships by not giving explanations unless you are asked for one.

(You can find these and other relationship improvement behaviors to work on in my book, Overcome Neediness and Get the Love You Want. Each one you stop will make your relationship better.)

Some tips on saying things better the first time

I want to give you some of the most important tips for saying the right thing rather than the wrong thing. Keep in mind that tips and books don’t improve relationships. Only you putting them into practice can do that.

7 Tips for saying things the right way, the first time:

  1. Pay attention to your nonverbal behavior–your tone of voice and body language can entirely change the meaning of what you are saying.
  2. Don’t fantasize about unrealistic responding–don’t imagine your spouse is going to be understanding and empathetic when you say something negative
  3. Imagine what you say will be taken the wrong way–assume that if something can be taken the wrong way, it will be.
  4. Think about how you would feel–some people are so focused on expressing their desires and feelings that they don’t consider others desires and feelings.
  5. Use the sandwich technique–if you must say something negative, sandwich it between two positive statements. I love you so much, I got jealous when you spent more time with your friend than me, but I wouldn’t trade you for the world.
  6. Don’t respond immediately–unless you are well practiced at responding with empathy and agreement, you may need to just listen, bite your tongue and not comment until you can figure out how to empathize and agree
  7. Rehearse what you are going to say–write it down and imagine someone said that to you. Practice saying it out loud and see if it sounds bad. This is especially important when we know in advance we will have to say something that could be taken in the wrong way.

Let me give you another example. Imagine which one you would rather your spouse say to you, if it needed to be said at all:

You lied to me again and I can’t trust you.


You know, I’ve said things before that weren’t exactly true, too. But you will need to be honest with me if you want me to trust you.

Once said, something cannot be unsaid. The best way to prevent damage is to take the time and care to say something right the first time.

Also, keep in mind that empathy does NOT prevent you from using good boundaries. We can empathize with our spouse or child wanting to do something, even if we won’t allow it. In fact, empathy helps to maintain the connection when we do have to use boundaries.

Making up may still need to be done

In relationships that have strong connection, making up may be unnecessary or very easy. In relationships where there is already a lot of conflict and poor connection, making up will be a necessary next step. I refer you to my article/podcast on the four steps of making up if you need to get your relationship back on a positive track.

Connection doesn’t happen by explaining or understanding. Connection happens by empathy and agreement.

If you are trying to build your relationship, avoid falling into the trap of repetitive explanation and learn to use good connection skills and boundaries instead.

If you need help with reconciling, I have a coaching package that includes the steps and skills to help you to make that happen.

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