The other day my husband tried to apologize to me and it was almost laughable. It didn’t sound sincere or believable. We eventually worked through it but it wouldn’t have been needed had he been taught how to apologize well.
A meaningful apology is more than just muttering the words, “I’m sorry.”
Apologizing to your partner (or anyone) takes humility, self-awareness, and emotional maturity. And sometimes, despite our best intentions, our attempt to do so can fall short. Learning how to make amends in a meaningful way that resonates with the other person will lead back to repair, trust and connection. Which is what we all want!
Apologizing well isn’t taught in schools or in most homes, unfortunately. It is a key element in the repair process and one that must be practiced and learned. Terry Real says that disharmony isn’t what separates healthy and unhealthy couples, it’s the presence (or absence) of repair.
Before we learn how to make a great apology, let’s take a look at what not to do. Here are six things that can undermine an apology.
- Using the word “but”
“I’m sorry, but…”
If you’re adding “but” to the end of your apology, you’re essentially contradicting anything you said before it. Sometimes it’s an excuse: “I’m sorry I said that, but I was really frustrated.” Other times it’s a way to shift blame: “I’m sorry I did that, but you did it first.” And sometimes, you’re simply trying to offer an explanation: “I’m sorry I was so late and didn’t call, but I took a wrong turn.” It’s natural to want to explain yourself and even to deflect blame away from yourself. However, attaching these conditions to your apology diminishes it. Instead, work on taking ownership and responsibility for your actions and their consequences. It’s not easy by any means, but it goes a long way in expressing a meaningful apology. It also sets the tone and habit for resolving future conflicts.
2. Unapologetic body language and tone
Crossed arms, looking away, turning away, or a harsh tone
Body language might seem less important than the words you’re saying, but it really is the foundation to communicating well. Think of a time you were talking to someone whose body language didn’t align with what they were saying. Maybe they were avoiding eye contact or something was off about their tone of voice. It probably made it difficult to believe them. Be mindful of matching your body language to what you’re feeling and saying – making good eye contact, keeping arms uncrossed, leaning towards, and using a warm or soft tone of voice.
3. Apologizing for your spouse’s reaction instead of your offense
“I’m sorry you feel that way.”
You’ve probably heard this classic before. Maybe you’ve even said it yourself. Yes, it includes the words “I’m sorry” and there’s no “but” in there; however, is it really an apology? It’s kind of like saying, “You’ve got feelings about it – that’s on you.” It’s cold and unhelpful. It doesn’t offer repair or connection. Focus on apologizing for your own actions. This is a great opportunity to use an “I” statement: “I’m sorry that I [insert action here].”
4. Not validating your spouse’s feelings
“I don’t understand why you feel that way.”
While you want to avoid apologizing for your spouse’s reaction, you do want to validate the feelings they might be having in the situation. This might sound like, “You’re angry with me, and it’s understandable,” or “I can understand why you would be upset with me.” This is a way of acknowledging how your actions have affected your partner and showing you understand where you went wrong, which is an important part of issuing a genuine apology.
5. Showing no desire to improve
Not being clear about behavioral changes, repeatedly making the same mistake, lacking seriousness or motivation
Some situations are a one-time thing. Maybe you forgot to pick up milk or fill the car up with gas. You apologize for a minor, unintentional offense that doesn’t require much extra thought. But when the issue is bigger, more repair is required. Part of that is reflecting on and discussing how you can do things differently going forward. It could be a promise to work on something individually or a plan for how to avoid the situation in the future. The willingness and desire to grow and be a better partner demonstrates your commitment to your marriage. Without it, an apology can feel a bit incomplete.
6. Turning the tables or using the word “you”
“I may have done that but you also did this.” “You are in the wrong here, too.”
When you are the one apologizing, it is not the time to focus on what the other person did or their past mistakes. This can completely invalidate your apology and also lead to an escalating conflict. Stick with your mistake when apologizing. If you’d like an apology for something or want to bring up something the other person did, do so in a different conversation.
Now that we know what NOT to do in an apology, let’s dive into the apology part of the repair process and what makes an apology a great one. Terry Real teaches his clients and other therapists the best way to apologize. Here it is.
- I’m sorry about _______.
- I did do that.
(And if it applies: And yes, I tend to do that.) (Extra credit: I can be a real ___.)
- That sounds ________. (Or any other validating statement.)
- Tell me more about ______. (Good listening skills apply!)
- Is there something I can do? (Action and change create trust.)
Remember, practice makes perfect. When you don’t apologize well, you shoot yourself in the foot and won’t get what you want— a happy, healthy relationship. After all, that’s way more important than being right or winning.
Kristi Schwegman is a psychotherapist specializing in helping couples develop healthy relationships, whether dating, engaged, or married. She also draws from her Christian-based approach to lead individuals in becoming aware of the limiting beliefs that can get them stuck.
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