She’s Sick of Sorry

by Alisa Bowman on December 30, 2009

A Reader Participation Post

Q: I know we need more communication in our marriage, but whenever I try to bring up any issue, my husband just says “I am sorry” and then runs off.  We don’t discuss how to change it, we don’t discuss what other things to try or anything. It’s like I am left hanging. Sometimes I will say, “I don’t want to hear ‘I am sorry.’ I want this to be fixed so we don’t have to talk about it anymore.” He says “I’m sorry, but I just don’t know,” and then I ask what he doesn’t know and he says, “I don’t know.”

How can someone be so full of  “I don’t knows” and “I am sorry’s” when no problem is ever fixed. It’s like he is running from the problem. I can’t take any more “I am sorry’s” and “I don’t knows!” Help!

– Sick of Sorry

I thought you all did a fantastic job helping Dejected in Minnesota with her marital issue, so I decided to make these reader participation posts a regular feature. Dear readers: do you have advice for Sick of Sorry? What would you do if you were in her situation? Have you overcome this problem yourself? If so how did you do it?

Personally, I think I would sit Sick of Sorry’s husband down. I would turn off the TV and remove every single other possible distraction in the room. I would say, “I am willing to give you a blowjob, but I want to talk to you about something very important first. I am going to ask you a question. All you have to do to earn the blowjob is answer the question. But your answer is not allowed to contain the phrases ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I don’t know.’ Here’s the question: Whenever I bring up a problem in our marriage, you tell me that you are sorry and claim that you “don’t know.” Why do you do this?”

Just me. How about you? What would you do?

A professional journalist, Alisa Bowman is the author of Project: Happily Ever After, a memoir of how she saved her marriage, and coauthor of Pitch Perfect, a must-read if you've ever had a sense of dread tie up your insides before a speech, presentation, or conversation. If you enjoyed this post, you will no doubt love her updates on Facebook and Twitter.

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Kate December 30, 2009 at 12:31 pm

Well, there is always the empathy method. It involves listening to your husband, really really really well. For example, if he’s not doing the dishes, you might say, “It seems that dishes aren’t your favorite chore.”

At least then you won’t get a “I don’t know” — and if you do, you can at least say, “You don’t know if dishes aren’t your favorite chore? Weird.”

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Esther December 30, 2009 at 12:42 pm

Have you tried talking to him about it at a different time? I know if I try to talk to my husband when hes in a bad mood or rushing, all I will get is an I don’t know. I find we do our best talking in the car while going somewhere, there are no distractions and no reason not to talk. But if he’s cranky or eating or busy around the house, it’s pointless to try to talk to him about it. Sometimes I’ll also say something like well lets talk about this on Sunday so we can each have some time to figure out why we fought about it (or so you have time to figure out what it is you don’t know)

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Nakita December 30, 2009 at 1:24 pm

I know my husband shuts down if he feels like I’m attacking him. He doesn’t like talking about us if he suspects that the conversation will be more about me telling him what he has done wrong (yet again!). So, sometimes I begin with an admission of fault. I try to let him know that I’m there to talk about our problems, even if means we spend some time talking about what I’m doing wrong. In fact, I encourage him all the time to tell me what I do that pisses him off.

Always be willing to do more listening than talking. Don’t get defensive, his reactions/feelings are just as valid as yours.

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Cyndi December 30, 2009 at 2:45 pm

I do love your suggestion! Blow jobs have been known to work miracles. ;)

I would suggest marriage counseling. There is a communication breakdown here and a marriage counselor can help sort that out. Sounds like he does not want any sort of confrontation with you at all and he may actually be baffled about what your problems are. He may think everything is great.

Another idea…instead of using an open ended question on how he is going to fix a problem, try coming up with 2 or 3 possible solutions of your own. Then present them to him and ask him to choose one.

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Almost Slowfood December 30, 2009 at 3:44 pm

My husband hates hates hates talking about issues and he use to do that too, but I finally said to him that it’s important to me that we talk. At the beginning it was all me talking and asking questions and all him half asleep and getting frustrated and saying I don’t know, but, with a little patience and time, we’re able to actually talk about issues and even resolve them now. Still not perfect, but is anything?? Good Luck!!!

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Aimee Davis December 30, 2009 at 4:45 pm

I think the shut-down, I’m sorrys, and I don’t knows are a man’s reaction to having been made to feel stupid or inferior, or him anticipating he’s about to me made to feel that way if he continues with the conversation. I don’t think some women realize how dominating and confrontational they can be with the tone of their voice and the words they use. I like Alissa’s suggestion because it automatically sets a lighter tone, you’ve probably already started off with a giggle, evened the playing field, so to speak. You’ve stated in very clear language the question you are asking and the exact words you don’t want to hear come out of his mouth. I think if women took a deep breath and a step back before they start one of those “we need to talk” conversations, and tried harder to talk to their partner as a PARTNER instead of an insolent child, things may go a little more smoothly. And it could very well take MANY tries to get your man to tear down his “don’t yell at me” wall….

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Rick December 30, 2009 at 4:47 pm

Interesting on the “I’m sorry”. A bit of a different perpective. If the apology can be communicated to the other person and the other person knows that you are feeling their pain, crying their tears, sharing, then they will be more likely to forgive. The trick here is to really understand the pain you caused and for them to know that you won’t do it again because you will feel that same pain and discomfort.

If you are truly apologizing, the other person may also not be ready to hear you are sorry and can not forgive. This takes time, patience, and discipline to stay the course and do the right things – going forward. You can not change the past, but only learn from it and move forward, not repeat it. This I have personally learned all too well and yes with empathetic pain and compassion.

p.s. the BJ reference made me laugh.

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bmg December 30, 2009 at 4:57 pm

I think that a combination of Aimee and Nakita’s comments are needed. It is important to watch your tone and vocabulary to avert the appearance of an attack (my wife is rarely attacking me when we need to have a conversation, but if she is not cognizant of her tone and word choice it can feel like one).

I’d be leery of too enticing a reward. If the reward is too large then, of course, the conversation goes great, but there is no lasting change.

It is also not necessary for the wife to “throw herself under the bus” with an admission of guilt, or another preemptive move. It is important that a neutral stance is taken (as opposed to “this is your fault so sit there and listen to me”).

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Alisa December 30, 2009 at 5:01 pm

Rick–glad you laughed. That was my goal.

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Alexandra December 30, 2009 at 7:08 pm

I just wanted to pipe in remember how different men and women are, following up on the comment from Almost Slowfood. Newly married folks tend to forget and not take that into consideration in attempts at communication. If you can throw in some humor, that always helps …

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Kathy December 30, 2009 at 10:07 pm

The BJ is a great idea, Alisa.

I also agree with removing all distractions and having a heart-to-heart talk. I know for me, sometimes my husband has hurt my feelings or done something that I need an apology for, but before he can even go there, he needs to discuss he’s anger/upset/discomfort that made him do whatever hurt my feelings.

It’s not easy to listen to. But I’ve learned to shut up, listen and acknowledge what he has to say. Then it’s my turn. We usually both end up saying I’m sorry. But it takes some willingness to hear the other person first.

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Natalie December 30, 2009 at 11:20 pm

While I agree that a heart to heart needs to happen regarding his responses (“I’m sorry” and “I don’t know” don’t help with anything, so I can understand the frustration), I’m curious. I’ve skimmed most of the answers above, reading several of them (it’s late and my eyes are tired, but I wanted to reply), so forgive me if I repeat anything.

I’m not sure what issues you’re more frustrated with, whether they’re as “mundane” as not helping with household chores, or if the issues are more “serious.” If they fall into the “serious” category, counseling would be beneficial if one or both of you are willing. If the issues fall into the “mundane” and there are specific things you’d like your husband to do, could you try asking him in a non-confrontational way to do those things? “Hey hun, I’m going to clean the house right now. Would you mind vaccuuming the living room for me?” I’ve found that if it’s something day-to-day, if I just ask for help (and take deep breaths when things are done even if not EXACTLY like I do them or on MY timeline) in a polite, non-confrontational way, my husband is more likely to help without arguement. I may even give him some warning: “Tomorrow, I’d like to do X. Could you help me/Could we figure out a time to sit and talk about it?”

Hope this helped some.

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OneHotTamale25 December 31, 2009 at 2:45 am

I too think it would be helpful to quantify “issues.” It is a possibility the motivation for the “I don’t know” response is your husband truly not knowing the things you bring up are important issues [i]to you[/i]. They may not be of significance to him. He may say he doesn’t know because he just really doesn’t. Of course, the possibility does exist that this is a method of avoidance or escape. In my experience, that is seldom the case. Though we like to assume our husbands catch on by the tones of our voices and our refrains regarding the matters [i] of our hearts [/i], sometimes they just honestly do not recognize the gravity and weight the concerns bear for us. Perhaps owning your concerns rather than framing them as marital issues would be helpful. Now, if the issues are clearly shared ones, I would encourage seeking counsel. Even if he says “I don’t know” about counseling, you could still participate.

Another thing that may help is approaching the concerns from the stance of being more loving and respectful toward him. Letting him know you care for him deeply and are invested in having a healthy marriage may encourage him to explore with you things you can both do to improve the condition of your marriage.

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Judy December 31, 2009 at 9:09 am

I’m a pursuer and my husband is a withdrawer. I like to get to the bottom of things and he shuts down when I start any conversation with, “We need to talk about something.” I don’t think that this is uncommon in married couples. When I have asked my husband why he does something (that irritates me) and he says “I don’t know”, I think that he: A. Really does not know why or, B. he knows a confrontation is coming and he is not wanting to go down that road because it is uncomfortable for him. I have noticed that if I begin our conversation with a harsh or accusatory start, he immediately withdraws. Timing and full attention is important for discussions of more serious issues. I think many of the other bloggers had great advice. I know that my husband needs specifics as Natalie mentioned. He does not respond in the way I would like when I give a general complaint. The BJ currency is great…. LOLOLOL

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Teresa December 31, 2009 at 9:50 am

I vote for pouring water over his head and saying, oh I’m sorry, I don’t know why I did that. Then take off in the car and go shopping. Repeat this two or three times and then try to have the conversation.

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Alisa December 31, 2009 at 10:03 am

Teresa–thanks for the laugh. That was perfectly timed.

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Maureen December 31, 2009 at 10:35 am

Alisa: OMG you read my mind. That was what I WAS GOING TO SAY!

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Stephanie December 31, 2009 at 10:57 am

When he says he “doesn’t know,” he really doesn’t. I’m sure it’s frustrating for great communicators to hear this from those of us who are not so good at it, but he probably does mean it, and grilling him won’t be the answer. I too, was once an “I don’t know”er, but with my husband’s patience I have blossomed into a pretty awesome communicator. My only real advice to you is: understand that your husband probably doesn’t know exactly how he feels and furthermore is not used to communicating. I grew up in a household where you did not talk about your feelings, desires, concerns…nothing…so it was just not in my skill-set when I got married. I’m not sure if your husband would be up for some therapy to help him learn how to communicate better. If he is, then great. If not, help him out! Maybe use your insight into how he might be feeling to gently open the issue–help him put words to his feelings. So instead of saying “what’s wrong? or why did you do that?” you might say something like “hey, are you maybe feeling like I should have spoken to you in a different tone of voice?” or “I notice that you don’t like it when I do this, is that right?” My husband did this for me and it was really eye-opening. I was like, “hey! that’s right, I just ‘DIDN’T KNOW’ before you said it.” Learning to communicate my feelings has truly transformed my marriage for the better. Best of luck, love, and patience.

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Rob January 1, 2010 at 10:22 am

Kudos to Nakita and Aimee, and all of the rest of you, but I think that the two of them came closest to the mark. This is the way that arguements between my wife and I generally go, and I think that many women don’t truly understand the power that they have over their husbands. We all have a tendency to watch sit coms and laugh at the husband who is stumbling over his tongue to answer the pointed questions that his wife is directing at him, but the reason we see it so often is because it is a common occurence. My wife has a tendency to tell me during our arguements, after I have already answered the question, what the right answer would have been and why my answer was wrong. First off, I generally don’t want to answer the question in the first place, and when I’m forced to do so I often find that I am making things up to try to answer the way that she wants me to, and my guess is totally off base.
Socialization as children generally prepares women far better than men as far as dealing with emotion and conflict on an intimate level. I don’t know exactly how to bridge the gap on that, I’m very much a ‘sweep things under the rug’ type of person, where as my wife is a, ‘lets not just pick up the rug, but rip out the carpet, floorboards, and foundation to find out what’s underneath” type of person. There is an awful lot of area in there to find middle ground, but it is tough to figure out something that is going to be remotely satisfying for either party. Most of the time my “I don’t know”s generally mean “I don’t know what kind of answer you are expecting” and my “I’m Sorry”s generally mean “I truly didn’t mean to hurt you but I can’t really articulate it as well as you would like me to and I am worried that if I make an attempt I am going to put my foot in my mouth and hurt you more.” Just to let you know, I have been married for 11 years, I know that these responses don’t work, but every other solution I have tried has been shot down, so I fall back on them again.
I don’t know if I can make any suggestions on how to bridge the gap, as I say, I have been pondering this one for many years and haven’t come up with a valid solution, but from a guy’s perspective, please take this advice:
1. We don’t generally go out of our way to piss you off, we are just not as in touch with our emotions as you are and, as such, less likely to see which of our actions are going to upset you.
2. Because we are not as bred for healthy conflict as you are, you will almost always win in a fair fight. We know this, and try to withdraw before it starts so that we don’t have to suffer the humiliation.
3. Lots of times we really don’t understand why you are upset because we are not as in touch with our emotions on the same level as you. Perhaps we can sympathize, but if you expect us to empathize…
4. The answer you want to hear is not always the only right answer. If you are going to force an answer out of your spouse, you have to be ready to accept what he has to say, even if it isn’t what you want to say.
5. As Freud said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” so to sometimes “I’m Sorry” is exactly what it means, so if you can accept it at that, please do.

Although, as a guy, I love Alissa’s suggestion of a BJ, hell, I would probably love to argue or discuss my feelings if it always ended like that, I don’t know that it is the best idea. Unless you are totally able to seperate the sexual act from your emotions you might have trouble following through if you don’t get the answer you deserve, and even if you can follow through I think it could leave to resentment on your part. If you promise it, and don’t follow through, then there is another wedge pushed into the cracks in trust in your relationship.
I wish you luck, however, and if you come up with an anwer and your husband responds well, let us all know. As someone who has been dealing with this problem from the other side for many years, I would love to get some idea as to how to move past it.
Cheers, and Happy New Year!

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Stephanie - Wasabimon January 2, 2010 at 2:46 am

“All you have to do to earn the blowjob is answer the question. But your answer is not allowed to contain the phrases ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I don’t know.’”

Oh dear, Alisa. That’s hilarious. I think this situation would make my husband’s brain explode – sometimes I think that the only words in his brain are “I don’t know.” Poor men and their smaller verbal brain centers.
.-= Stephanie – Wasabimon´s last blog ..Zoë & Jeff’s Gluten Free Brioche Recipe =-.

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Claudine January 3, 2010 at 8:12 pm

Most of the time, it’s easier to get the males in my life (and I have a ton in my life, so i’m not doing a gross generalization, it’s just something I’ve noticed) it’s easiest to get to the heart of a matter when you get them busy with something. For example, I know my son will talk to me if I suggest we play a little catch with the lacrosse sticks, or shoot basketballs, or whatever. My other son talks to me if I notice his legos and ask him about them. As we play with the legos, I ask questions, he spills it. If I said, “let’s sit and talk” I would get nothing but grunts and stares into space. Same with my husband. Find the thing that you can do together (making dinner, driving in the car, something where the kids are not going to interrupt) and while having an easy conversation say, “Oh, I noticed x, y, z…” or whatever. The biggest thing is that you may have to wait for the full answer over a period of conversations. I have one son that is VERY tight lipped. (He’s destined for the CIA). I get full answers on things after several days of short talks.
.-= Claudine´s last blog ..Little Girl Tennis Bracelet: Crossweave Lesson =-.

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Angelia January 6, 2010 at 12:40 pm

I have similar issues with my hubby. He gives me “I don’t know”, or get defensive about situations that don’t call for it. Bribing him with a blow job just might open him up a bit!
.-= Angelia´s last blog ..January Monthly Goal Meet-Up =-.

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Dionne January 29, 2010 at 4:08 pm

At least she gets an apology. What about those that have no intention of accepting responsibility for their actions and just blame ur response for causing the issue. I would be totally happy with sorry.

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Dawn May 2, 2010 at 4:12 pm

This all sounds just like using sex as a tool to solve the real issues? Shouldn’t you just be connecting and having a great sex life in the first place? And figure out some other way to solve the “issues” ?

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