This post in part of an ongoing series called Connection Point. Featuring content written by the professors and licensed counseling professionals in our graduate counseling program, these posts are designed to inform and encourage our readers as they strive for total health—mind, body and soul.
Life is full of double entendre, a play-on-words in which the same words have two distinctly different meanings. Therapists also use double entendre when working with couples. For example, the oft-repeated truism “the shortest distance between two points is a straight line” has a common geometric meaning evidenced every time I use my GPS. While there may be several options, the preferred route is the most direct because it travels the fewest miles and requires the least amount of time. Hence, the shortest distance between two points . . .
The geometric derivation of this phrase simply means that straight is shorter than curvy. Therefore, when I (as a therapist) use this play-on-words, I add a qualifier and say something like the following: “The shortest distance between two points is a straight line—like ‘I’m sorry.’” For my couple, the qualifier “I’m sorry” is the straight line and the action they need to embrace. In communication, a straight line is something short, to the point, honest, and—most importantly—genuine. It involves no sleight of hand, no buts, no detractions, no curves; it is simply an honest and genuine statement. And these straight lines make a difference in a marriage.
I meet with many couples who haven’t yet figured out simple geometry. They don’t speak with straight lines, and they get stuck. For example, if a wife tells her husband that her feelings were hurt when he yelled at her, and he responds with a genuine “I’m sorry,” he has used a straight line. The breach can be repaired.
But if instead he responds in a gruff tone, “I’m sorry that I hurt your feelings, but I didn’t intend to hurt you” (implying she shouldn’t be hurt because he didn’t intend to hurt her), he’s not using a straight line. Partners know when they are hearing straight lines. Because she doesn’t feel better with his less-than-genuine apology, he then blames her for not being able to “get over it” and fires back with “I can’t even apologize right for you!”
The confused wife now wonders, “How is it he did the wrong but I end up being the bad guy?”
A straight line comes with personal ownership of wrongdoing and is something like “I’m sorry.” Anything else is curvy. There’s no room for buts or other tagalongs in this sentence. Nothing restorative occurs until wrongdoing is first honestly and genuinely owned. Why you did it doesn’t matter. That you did it does.
There is no right reason for doing the wrong thing. And that part is what has to be owned—that you were wrong and that you are genuinely sorry for that wrong.
Other words can be added to “I’m sorry.” Words like “I know I hurt you;” “I didn’t mean to hurt you;” “It’s not you, I had a hard day at the office;” or “I overreacted.” But these are offered to help understand what happened, not to excuse it and are only offered after a genuine apology.
The key to a straight-line communication between partners is genuine ownership for wrongdoing and remorse. Once that communication is expressed, softening can occur and restoration can begin. But anything short is curvy.
How’s your geometry?
Donald Harvey, Ph.D., is a professor, author, and therapist with a private practice in Brentwood, Tenn., and he is a professor in the Graduate Counseling program at Trevecca Nazarene University.
This article originally appeared in Nashville Christian Family magazine.