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My wife and I have been married for a long time and are in a loving relationship.

Unfortunately I have memory issues (ADHD, dyspraxia and similar co-morbid conditions) as does she from both similar and different conditions (things like chronic fatigue, but also CPTSD which causes memory blanks).

Twice recently I've upset her very badly.

Once when she was trying to help me wake up for work, and I accused her of something. By her account I was awake, but she was so shocked by what I said she blanked the memory - possibly as a unconscious coping strategy developed from her CPTSD. I have no memory of that event, but I trust her recall. She was left with an overwhelming feeling of hurt from what I said without knowing what was said. She finds inability to remember intensely distressing.

Once this morning, again when she was attempting to help me wake up. I remember something happening and some careless words on my behalf and her anger. I'm going to roll the dice and see how much she remembers when I wake her up soon for her morning medicine.

For context neither or us get a healthy amount or quality of sleep, which we're both working on. We both feel guilty about not helping each other more.

I feel like I should apologize, however in the past when I've apologized without knowing what or why, it's made things worse because of the perceived insincerity. She has experienced a lot of trauma from insincere people manipulating her and can't shake that impression in these scenarios.

For my part, whether I was asleep or awake, or I do or don't remember, etc. I want to take responsibility, improve and change in a way that would prevent this from happening, however in the past I've been ineffectual in this regard.

So how can I apologize sincerely when I am not sure what was done wrong? How can I express that I am trying to improve when I can't prove it with my actions?

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    You want to improve doing something better that you don't even know? This can't work. Don't try to say "sorry for whatever I did" for no other reason because people say that.
    – puck
    Mar 2 at 10:02
  • In these situations where your wife is trying to wake you up, is this for something that is scheduled like "you have to get up to go work"? Or is this unscheduled like "there's someone on the phone who needs to talk to you"?
    – DaveG
    Mar 2 at 17:50

1 Answer 1

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Over the years, I've come to place less value on apologies and more value on clear and open statements of belief and intention. This is all the more important in your case where the actual upsetting incident is not well remembered.

For example, let's say you said something very upsetting, and now you don't remember what you said and your wife cannot or will not tell you exactly what it was. Perhaps she will be able to tell you how it made her feel. Maybe "it made me feel like a servant you could yell at for being slow or not guessing right". Or "it made me feel like my opinion didn't matter". Something like that.

Then you can concentrate on being clear about your feelings. Something like:

I'm so sorry. I don't think you're a servant at all. We're a team. I guess I let my irritation about not being able to do something show itself as being irritated with the way you were helping me. That's not how I feel. I am very grateful you help me. Whatever you do for me is a gift and it's wrong for me to complain about it. I will keep trying to be clear about when I am angry at myself or my situation and when I am angry at you, which is very rare. I'm sorry my reaction this morning was not clear about how much I value the help you give me.

This breaks the rules for a good apology, which should say "I did X. I am sorry, that was wrong. I will do A, B, and C to make sure I don't X again." You can't do that because you're not sure what X is and more importantly, you can't say "I won't get mad" or "I won't yell" or "I won't sleep too little" or whatever the issue is, because these things are out of your control. What's more, specifically repeating your offense (even if you knew it) might be just as upsetting as in the first case.

In my own life there is someone who says horrible things and then thinks no more of them. He doesn't apologize because he doesn't "store" saying them or have a sort of "oh, I should take that back later it was really too much" to-do list item. If I say to him "this morning you said X" he used to say "I didn't!" and really believe it. These days he has improved to "did I? Well I don't mean that at all." That is definitely an improvement. I would be happier if he could add "in fact, not-X" as well, and suggest you learn to.

This requires your wife to remember a little more about the incidents. Not what precisely you said, but how they made her feel. Worthless? Abandoned? Vulnerable? Unimportant? Judged? Corrected? You can then clearly say, in small and unambiguous words, I value you, I am not authorized to judge you, I will never leave you, You are vitally important to me, and other true statements she needs to hear to help her feel less upset and angry by what you said. These are really things that can't be said too much. Have them outweigh a temporary outburst while waking up or other passing incidents.

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