The Right and Wrong Way to Apologize

The Right and Wrong Way to Apologize March 19, 2019

Many people stubbornly hold onto the belief that they have nothing to apologize for – especially if their hurtful behavior or words were not intentional. Meanwhile, his or her partner may be suffering and an unwillingness to apologize can prevent healing and reconciliation from taking place.

In Why Won’t You Apologize, relationship expert Harriet Lerner, Ph.D. explains that “I’m sorry” are the two most powerful words in the English language. She suggests that the courage to apologize is at the heart of effective leadership, marriage, parenting, friendship, integrity, and what we call love.

Nonetheless, many couples have difficulty apologizing. For instance, when Rob and Susan would argue about her tendency to overspend and charge things on her credit card, their fights would get intense and harsh words would be exchanged. For a few years, they didn’t understand the importance of repairing hurt feelings and so apologies weren’t part of their dialogue.

One day, when Rob was heading out to the gym, and they were disagreeing, Susan accused him of being a jerk and yelled some obscenities.  When she waited to apologize two days later, she said, “I’m sorry you overreacted to my comments” which came across as insincere and made Rob feel angrier. As a result, he carried around resentment for several days, clammed up, and then  completely shut down.

In this situation, Susan’s apology didn’t have the effect she was looking for and even made matters worse. When you apologize to your partner, be sure to do it in the right way that doesn’t include excuses for your actions or words. Not all apologies will be the same but most will contain some important elements.

5 effective ways to apologize to your partner:

  1. Accept responsibility for your hurtful behavior and the damage you caused. Acknowledge that you messed up by saying something like “I take responsibility for my actions and I’m sorry that they hurt you.” One partner’s ability to do this can change the quality of your interactions from negative to positive.
  2. Use the words “I am sorry” and “I was wrong” when you apologize and make it personal. Your apology will more likely be heard and accepted if you use these words. Be specific about exactly what you did to hurt, humiliate, or embarrass your partner. For example, “I’m sorry for hurting you and violating your trust. I was wrong when I embarrassed you in front of your sister (or brother) and I am sorry for my hurtful words.”
  3. Explain to your partner how you plan to repair the situation. For example, if you said something to hurt your partner’s friend’s feelings, you might offer to apologize to her the next time she stops by or ask your spouse to invite them over.
  4. Tell your partner what you said or did in specific terms without making excuses or blaming them or someone else. Using “I” statements rather than “You” statements can help you avoid the blame monster. For instance, you might say “I’m sorry for being demanding when you were not ready for our date on time. I’m very sorry for treating you disrespectfully.” This is more effective than saying, “You promised to be ready at 6 pm and it angered me when you didn’t keep your promise. You weren’t being thoughtful.”
  5. Request that your partner to grant you forgiveness. Be specific about your behavior that needs to be forgiven. Be sure to do so when the setting is conducive to a private conversation and there aren’t any distractions (TV, cell phones, children in the room, etc.).

Heartfelt apologies are an essential ingredient of a strong, healthy marriage. If you ask yourself how you would feel if you were walking in your partner’s shoes, it will enhance your empathy and willingness to give your partner time to be open to listening to a genuine apology if they seem reluctant. When you acknowledge your flaws – the things that make you human – you can be vulnerable with your partner rather than allowing your fear of rejection or failure to overwhelm you.

Twitter, Facebook, and, Terry’s award winning book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website.

I’d love to hear from you and answer your questions about relationships, divorce, marriage, and remarriage. Please ask a question here. Thanks! Terry 

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