According to Arnold Schwarzenegger's autobiography, Total Recall, after he committed adultery with his housekeeper, he denied to his wife Maria Shriver that the child was his -- because he "didn't know" he was the father. Having both lied and cheated, there's little room for doubt that Arnold had wronged his wife.
When, years later, Maria confronted him in the therapist's office with concerns that the governess's child looked an awful lot like him, his tactic was to finally reveal the truth. Then he offered an apology: "I told her how sorry I felt about it, how wrong it was, and that it was my fault. I just unloaded everything."
Arnold's case, while headline grabbing, is not unique. When couples struggle with the complications of infidelity, there's a lot of work to be done; part of that work involves owning up to an affair and offering an apology. And an apology isn't easy; it is a complex form of communication. I explore the details of apology and forgiveness in my new book, The Secrets of Surviving Infidelity.
In order for an apology to be an effective means of communication, it must include five steps. These steps don't apply just to affairs or infidelity. They are necessary to mend any kind of perceived wrongdoing.
Step 1: Understand what you are apologizing for.
A genuine apology sounds easy. You probably know by now that it's not. If you've had an affair, I'll bet that on many occasions you've already tried to say "I'm sorry." Or, having had your first apology rejected, you may have tried, "I've already said I'm sorry. What else would you like me to say?"
If you have already apologized, your mate may have failed to accept it because it does not feel genuine. Even if, in your heart of hearts, you swear you mean it, it may not be perceived that way. For your message of remorse to get across, you've got to do a fair amount of introspection to figure out what you are apologizing for -- even before you say the words. You are apologizing for much more than "having an affair." There is a lot more that you have done, or not done, that surrounded the affair: things like causing embarrassment to the family, giving up family time, or even bringing home STDs. Your partner wants you to take responsibility for all of it. You should.
When you do tell your partner that you hurt them with your actions, you should give a full account of all the wrongs you have committed. Don't be surprised if your partner chimes in with a few you didn't think of.
Step 2: Accept responsibility.
When it comes time to offer an apology, you must, above all, be clear about what you have done. Be absolutely certain not to shirk responsibility by sharing the blame with anyone or anything else. Apologizing is not saying, "It never would have happened if I hadn't been hanging out with my sister," or "The captain shouldn't have assigned me a female partner." In particular, be careful to avoid labeling your spouse as responsible, for example, with words like: "If only I had been getting more love from you, I wouldn't have looked elsewhere." Your behavior is your responsibility and no one else's. You'll know you're on the right track when no one offers any disagreement about what you are apologizing for.
People sometimes try to decrease their own responsibility by adding "if" to their statement about the other person's reaction. Saying "I'm sorry if what I did hurt your feelings" is very different from saying "I'm sorry for what I did, and I know it caused you pain." The "if" statement tells the person that you have remorse about the outcome, not about your actions. Don't do that.
Step 3: Offer alternatives.
You've probably heard the advice to stay away from the "coulda, woulda, shoulda" attitude toward life. Well, here's a place where this is exactly the attitude you need. A hearty dose of "I should have told you that I was going out to lunch with her," or "I wish had not shared my problems with him" tells your partner that you understand there "coulda" been a better way of handling things, and gives hope that you will make better choices in the future.
Step 4: Abolish expectations.
Another aspect of a genuine apology is to offer it without expectation to get something back. This isn't a proposition of "I'll say what I did wrong so you will tell me what you did wrong," or even "I'll say I'm sorry if you say you'll forgive me." Your sole goal should be to make sure your partner hears you. It's certainly okay to offer the hope that your partner will accept the apology, but you cannot make that a condition for offering it.
Step 5: Say, "I'm sorry."
You may be thinking that you are very, very sorry. You may have admitted to all your wrong doings. You may have asked for forgiveness, and you may have promised never to do it again. But your partner may still turn to you and say "You never said you were sorry." Don't forget to say you're sorry!
Studies about gender differences reveal that women tend to offer spontaneous apologies more than men do. Women are more likely to perceive things they have done as requiring the offer of apology, but men tend to see real and imagined wrongs as not deserving an apology, because they "weren't that big of a deal." In the case of affairs, there is no room for gender differences: saying "I'm sorry" is a necessity.
Not every affair gets splashed across international headlines, but mistakes do happen in everyone's lives. That's what apologies are for. Having an affair is a big mistake, and it healing requires a genuine apology. Then the rebuilding can begin.