If you’re in a family, you’ll almost certainly make mistakes. You’re likely to hurt the feelings of loved ones, and they’ll hurt yours, although the hurt may be masked by irritability or resentment.
The ability to repair mistakes can make or break relationships. An effective apology makes relationships resilient and secure.
Failure to apologize, or worse, giving an inadequate apology, can be a precursor of emotional abuse. After nearly 40 years of working in this field, I’m convinced that most emotional abuse has roots in an inability to apologize adequately for what starts out as inadvertent insensitivity. That begins a chain of resentment that may eventually lead to emotional abuse.
How we apologize makes all the difference. Many people think they’re apologizing when they’re coming off as appeasing or patronizing or dismissive.
The most important elements of apology are sincerity and follow-through: that is, feel what you say and “walk the walk,” not just “talk the talk.”
Reconciliation, not submission
You will find it impossible to apologize sincerely or adequately if you see it as a submission. A sincere apology is never submission. In fact, it is one of the more beautiful forms of human interactions: reconciliation.
“Our connection is important to me; you’re important to me. I’m so sorry that my behavior hurt you and broke our connection.”
The primary purpose of an apology is to restore an eventual (not necessarily immediate) connection. It is never to defend your ego.
An apology must not:
- Be contingent on your partner apologizing. (You’re apologizing for violating your own values, not trying to manipulate your partner into sharing the blame.)
- Be tempered by excuses.
- Have any element of blame. (“It takes one to know one.”)
- Seek immediate forgiveness. (Trust must be restored gradually, through behavior that demonstrates trustworthiness over time.)
Why not ask for forgiveness?
Many authors make glib statements about asking for forgiveness in apologies. Doing so is likely to undermine relationship repair in the long run, especially if construed as:
“Let’s pretend it never happened.”
If you want to forget it happened, you probably don’t get the effects of the injury, which raises the likelihood that you’ll do it again.
Asking for forgiveness before hurt feelings have healed puts an unfair burden on the hurt party to allay natural anxiety about reinvestment in trust when an emotional injury is still sending out alarms to keep defenses intact.
The motivation to ask for forgiveness is to relieve guilt and is largely self-centered:
“I want you to get over this so I can feel less guilty.”
It must be replaced with compassion, which is focused on the healing and well-being of the hurt person:
“I want you to feel better and to forgive me only when you feel comfortable doing so.”
An apology should:
- Come from your heart and sympathize with the effect of your behavior on your loved one. (Focus on what it meant to your loved one, not on how you would have been affected by it.)
- State how important your partner’s well-being is to you.
- State how sorry you are that you’ve done something to hurt your loved one and/or break your connection.
- Offer recompense: “How can I make it up to you?”
- If the offense is recurring, describe an action plan to prevent a future repetition of the offending behavior.
Action plan to prevent recidivism
- Identify the antecedents of the hurtful behavior—what you were thinking, feeling, and doing, as well as the state of your physical resources (hungry, tired, thirsty, having consumed more than two drinks or more than two cups of coffee, or eaten too much sugar).
- Give the details of how you will act differently under similar conditions in the future:
“This is what I will do to remind myself how much I value you when similar conditions occur in the future—when I feel stressed, flooded, distracted, tired, uncomfortable.”
If you’re receiving an apology, don’t see it as an opportunity for retaliation or revenge. (The surest way to discourage apology is to criticize or punish someone for doing it.) If your partner’s apology seems insufficient, acknowledge the repair attempt, then state what more you need to feel safe.
Satisfying apologies are different for different people. An acceptable apology for you might not work for your partner and vice versa. Tell your partner what you need to feel reassured that the hurtful behavior is unlikely to recur. Of course, with repeated infractions, the requirements to feel safe will be greater.
Improving the art of apology not only does wonders for your relationship, but it also puts you solidly in touch with your core value. When solidly in touch with your core value, you feel more authentic, with no need for defenses of entitlement, resentment, or anger, which inevitably lead to behavior for which you must apologize.