Blake and I started pre-marital counseling about six weeks after we started dating. That's right - pre-marital counseling six weeks after we started dating! We knew right away that we wanted to head towards marriage, so we enlisted pastor and friend, Jonathan Cook to talk with us and help us navigate through our emotions and to make a prayerful decision about marriage. I had already spent nearly a year in counseling with Jonathan, so transitioning to pre-marital counseling with him was easy for me. He wasn't the type of counselor who just touched on the surface-level issues - this was deep stuff. Core-of-your-heart kind of deep. To Blake, it was scary! But it was so worth it!
We met with Jonathan up until a few months before our wedding. It was the best investment in our marriage we could have made. We walked away feeling confident in our decision to get married, with level heads on our shoulders, and with an aresenal of relationship-defending tools.
But the most valuable lesson we learned through our counseling was about forgiveness and apologizing. In our wedding ceremony, Jonathan joked that we were the only couple he's ever had to actually come to counseling in the middle of a fight. Honestly, it was really embarrassing to be so angry at Blake in front of someone else - but it was the best session we had! Through it, Jonathan taught us how to listen to each other, how to forgive each other, but most importantly - how to seek forgiveness.
The advice we were given goes beyond marriage - it's essential for all of our relationships. The church spends a great deal of time talking about how to forgive. But we don't often learn how to ask for forgiveness. A simple "I'm sorry" is just a band-aid... truly asking for forgiveness is putting yourself in a true state of vulnerability. It is scary, but it is worth it.
So, I wanted to share some of the things we learned with you in hopes that you'll strengthen your relationships the way we have. Here are the high points:
1. Learn to recognize when you have wronged someone, whether intentionally or not: Picture this scenario - two kids are playing on a swingset. One is swinging and one is running around. The second kid walks in front of the swinging kid and gets knocked down. The kid is hurt, crying, and scared. The swinging kid continues to swing away, oblivious and/or uncaring about what has just happened. Many times we say or do things that unintentionally hurt others, but we are completely unaware of how hurt they are or we simply do not care. We think, I didn't mean to sound so harsh or I wasn't trying to be offensive and so we assume the other person is overreacting. Maybe they are overreacting, but you've wronged them nonetheless. Just like the swinging kid scenario above - the kid who gets knocked down is hurt. The swinging kid wasn't purposefully trying to injure anyone, but it happened anyway. We have to learn to recognize when we've hurt someone and be quick to apologize.
2. "I'm just blunt." or "I'm just telling the truth.": These are two excuses I have heard dozens of times after someone says something harsh and is trying to cover up their rudeness with an "it's-just-my-personality" kind of thing. Speaking in truth to someone should be done with a lot of grace. Just saying what you think with disregard to another's feelings is blatant disrespect, not "speaking the truth". If there is something we need to say to someone that is going to hurt a little, we need to do it with respect, understanding, and with a positive goal in mind: to come to a better understanding with the other person. "For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of." - Luke 6:45 ~ What comes out of your mouth is an indication of what is in your heart.
3. Be Proactive: One great way to master the art of apologizing is to not have to apologize in the first place! James 1:19 tells us, "...Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, because anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires." When our tempers arise and we are tempted to say things we will later regret, it's best to... can you guess?.... not say them at all! It's hard, I know. Blake and I have had some pretty ugly arguments where our tempers got the best of us. But we have learned how to argue productively and we try to keep level heads when we really just want to be at each others' throats! :)
4. "I'm sorry if...": If your apology includes the words "if," or "but," then it's not a true apology. Wording your apology to make it seem as though the other person is at fault doesn't work, either. Here are some examples:
- Bad: "I'm sorry if I made you mad earlier."
- Good: "I'm sorry I made you mad earlier."
- Bad: "I'm sorry I hurt your feelings, but I was just really upset in the moment."
- Good: "I am sorry I hurt your feelings. I let my anger get the best of me."
- Bad: "I'm sorry you're upset."
- Good: "I'm sorry I've upset you."
- Bad: "I'm sorry you were offended with what I said."
- Good: "I'm sorry I offended you."
Are you getting the jist of it? For a true apology, you've got to get to the heart of the matter - like I said in #1, whether you've done wrong intentionally or not, you've got to acknowledge the other person's feelings. Maybe they are being overly sensitive or maybe they are overreacting - but they've been hurt and you've got to own up to it and learn from your mistake so it doesn't happen again. Maybe you've picked at them just out of fun, but it deeply hurts them - well, now you know they don't like to be picked on. Pay attention to the situtation, truly apologize, and keep it from happening again.
5. "Will you forgive me?": By far, this was the best advice we got from marriage counseling. When there is deep hurt, there needs to be a deep apology. Asking this question puts you in an exteremely vulnerable situation - the other person completely has the right to say "no". But asking this question shows how genuine you are about seeking forgiveness and it usually leads to a greater level of intimacy with the other person. The times we've whipped out this question, Blake and I have had this overwhelming sense of comfort and peace. You really put yourself out there with this question and when forgiveness is granted, you can feel the physical effect of grace. Try it sometime, I dare you!
These are just a few of the tools Jonathan gave us to keep from killing each other during those heated moments of frustration. :) I hope they are as helpful to you as they have been to us - and not just in a romantic relationship. I've used these tips with friends and family and find they work just the same! God wants us to be gracious to one another and when we aren't, we need to own up to it. And once we get used to genuinely apologizing, it doesn't become such a big deal. We begin to lose our pride and realize that we're human and we're going to mess up and once we make it right, we can move on and learn from the experience.
Oh, and about that fight Blake and I had during our counseling session... it was all over a disagreement about what we were going to teach in our small group lesson. We agreed on the topic (Jonah), but during a trip to the library to get some books, we realized we didn't like each others' ideas about how to teach it... which turned into an argument at the library, an argument on the ride to the church, and arguing in front of Jonathan. It was a pretty stupid fight (they usually are), but look what it did for us!! I think we ended up apologizing during the counseling session and eventually came to a resolution that we were both comfortable with. And our small group lesson was awesome!