The Art of an Apology
Apologizing is a vulnerable act and vulnerability can be hard. As such, we often avoid it to keep ourselves protected; unfortunately, this “protection” can act like a wall around your relationship. It effectively prevents the two of you from connecting and growing together. I want to invite you to see apologizing as a bridge between what divides you, and as an opening for connection. Learning the art of an apology will help repair your relationship, and serves as a gift to everyone involved.
Create Intimacy With an Apology
If you desire a close, intimate relationship, vulnerability is required. Yes, it takes practice to open up to something bigger, and to surrender and let love flow in and out - but it is worth it. When a partner has been hurt by the actions of the other, it serves as a wound. It triggers the hurt person into survival territory, and we can’t maintain intimacy while in a survival state. Thus, it is up to the person who has done wrong to repair the hurt, so that the relationship can be repaired and thrive.
If you’ve hurt your partner but not apologized for your wrongdoing, or only given a poor apology because you are also hurting, you are only holding on to your own state of survival, and will invite more of the same from your partner. You are choosing to survive, rather than thrive, and your actions will determine what happens next in your relationship.
To learn more about vulnerability, I highly recommend you read or listen to anything by Brené Brown, an expert on the topic. In her interview with Harriet Lerner, Relationship Expert and author of Why Won’t You Apologize?, the two walk through the parts of an effective apology. By sharing examples of what a good apology does or doesn't look like, they show how a good apology is necessary for a relationship to thrive, while a bad apology or none at all can actually do more harm.
The 9 Ingredients of an Effective Apology
To support you as you learn the art of an apology, I have outlined the ingredients of one based on Lerner’s book. An effective apology:
1. Does not include the word “but.” This is the easiest to remember, says Lerner, because we do it so often. “I’m sorry I was late, but traffic was terrible.” Or, “I’m sorry, but I didn’t mean it.” Any time you add the word “but” to the sentence, you cancel out what you said prior, and thus the apology itself.
2. Keeps the focus on your actions, not the other person’s response. The apology shouldn’t include reference to the others' actions. For example, saying “I’m sorry you were hurt” focuses on how the other person feels, but not your part. An example of an effective apology is “I’m sorry I overreacted,” or “I’m sorry for saying that about you, it was wrong of me.” Taking responsibility for your actions is critical.
3. Includes an offer of reparation that fits the situation. In situations where you have damaged, taken, or lost something that belonged to someone else, it makes sense to replace that thing. But when it comes to relationships, restitution may look like specific actions that demonstrate your remorse and your commitment to repair things. In cases of betrayals around infidelity or lying, it may look like, “I’m sorry for being late. I know this worries you, so I’ll call you whenever I know I will be late from now on.”
4. Does not go overboard. There is beauty in simplicity, and this also applies to an apology. Simply saying “I’m sorry,” and what you’re sorry for (owning your actions) is enough. When you profusely apologize, (I’m so sorry, I’ll never do it again, let me make it up to you!), it only serves to anger the person who is hurting, and makes them feel less seen and heard.
5. Doesn’t get caught up in who’s more to blame or who started it. Apologize for your part even if the other person can’t see theirs. It can be easy to get caught up in whose fault things are and place blame. Getting into the blame game only invites a power struggle, and the survival state you want to avoid. Rather, stepping into your best self will help both you and the relationship grow. A simple “I’m sorry I lied to you” is a lot better than “I’m sorry I lied, but I knew you would overreact like always.”
6. Requires that you do your best to avoid a repeat performance. An apology loses its power when the behavior it’s making up for keeps happening. Lerner points out that “An endless, meaningless string of apologies signals a failure to change one’s own behavior.” Offer your apology and then show up. Be conscious of your hurtful actions and do your best not to do it again.
7. Should not serve to silence others. Knowing that you’ve done something to hurt someone is uncomfortable. You might feel bad or ashamed, but saying sorry just to avoid talking about it anymore isn’t a true apology. The intention behind the apology matters. If your intention is to repair your relationship, it brings honor to the hurt person's experience. An ineffective apology may sound like: “I said I was sorry, what else do you want me to do?” Or “Why can’t you just let it go and move on?” Instead of a true apology, these are efforts to silence the communication and is a recipe for further hurt and disconnection.
8. Shouldn’t be offered if it risks making the hurt party feel worse. Again, the intention of a true apology should be about repair. It should serve only to soothe and calm the hurt person.
9. Doesn’t ask anything from the hurt party, not even forgiveness. Offer an apology because you are apologetic for your actions, nothing more. If it’s used as a bargaining tool, it will cut off the other person's process and time that’s needed for them to settle and decide what they need. An effective apology isn’t meant to end the conversation, but rather as a way to bring the intensity down so that further conversation can flow.
Practicing the art of an apology can create a platform for self-esteem and self-respect. If you drop into shame and don’t apologize, you miss out on the opportunity for your own growth, and the growth of your relationship.When you offer an apology, start with the intention of a true apology, keep it simple, take accountability, and don’t ask for anything in return, even if you want an apology yourself. If that’s the case, bring it up at a later time; the moment isn’t about you. It’s about closing the gap between the two of you through repair and reconnection.