A heartfelt apology is the most powerful way to restore a relationship when there has been an injury or breach. If handled badly or offered in the wrong spirit, however, an apology is sure to cause more harm than good.
Sadly, even well-intended apologies can make things worse when the apologizer doesn’t understand the process. Learning how and making a commitment to apologizing well is critical for building happy, strong relationships that last.
It’s Not Easy
A good apology is hard to give because it can remind us of the ways we have been inconsiderate, unjust, or insincere. It can make us feel vulnerable, and trigger shame or guilt. It’s understandable to look for ways to apologize that minimize the pain they feel.
There are many ways people try to minimize the pain. Some try to obtain instant forgiveness: “I apologized, so let’s move on. Case closed.” Others avoid apologies altogether: “If I apologize, it will open to the door for you to humiliate or abuse me. It will damage the relationship even more. Better to leave it alone.”
At its core, a true apology is simply this: openly taking responsibility for anything you said or did that caused your partner harm.
Apology Do’s and Don’ts
• Know what you are apologizing for. The other person is the best judge of the ways they were harmed by your actions. You should strive to understand their injuries as they see them, even if you don’t agree.
• Resist the temptation to justify your actions or talk about mistakes your partner made. Keep the focus of the apology on your partner’s experience. You can justify your actions or discuss your partner’s role another time.
• Ask your partner about things you could do to reduce their pain or repair the relationship. Let your partner set the agenda for what will help them heal. If, however, your partner tries to punish or shame you, or indulge in a rage attack, point out that getting revenge or trying to hurt you will do no good and in fact will further damage the relationship.
Manage Your Expectations
Apologies are emotionally risky, and it’s important to have realistic expectations. It sets you up for more pain if you are expecting
• A warm reception. Your partner’s reactions are beyond your control. He or she may be shut down and not be ready for real communication.
• Forgiveness. It may be too hard for your partner to forgive you. Forgiveness may never come, or it may take a long time.
• Restoration of the relationship. Even if your partner can forgive, he or she may never be able to look past the injury or rebuild trust.
Benefits of apologizing
In truth, an apology is mostly about restoring your relationship with yourself. By taking stock of your actions and facing the parts of you that were capable of causing harm, you can begin the process of learning from the experience and forgiving yourself. But perhaps the biggest benefit of an apology is that it will lighten the load for both you and your partner. Remember that for every minute you spend being ashamed, beating yourself up, or avoiding the issue, you lose sixty seconds of happiness.