I’ve found that I’ve become increasingly allergic to the word “apology.” I’m not allergic to apologizing, just the word, mostly because I think it has lost most of its meaning. I especially hate when an apology begins with “I’m sorry,” which is usually offered defensively and is often followed by “but.”
That said, I spend a lot of time with couples who are desperate to get back on track after a painful or regrettable event. If they’re doing repair in my office, however, I make them focus on a bunch of other “A” words as part of their Apology.
Maybe you promised to wash the dishes before you went to bed but totally forgot. Maybe you responded to an emotionally vulnerable moment with criticism or carelessness. Maybe you had major betrayal like an affair or an addiction. If you’re willing to walk through these steps, you’ll be that much closer to getting back on track.
Following these five steps can help you recover no matter how large or small the offense.
The absolute first thing you need to do is acknowledge your partner's complaint. Acknowledge that it hurt. Acknowledge that you have some responsibility for that hurt. It’s important that you not deny your partner’s experience. It’s their experience. That doesn’t necessarily make you bad or wrong. Indeed the only thing that is 100 percent true about their experience is that they believe it. Any authentic apology begins with an acknowledgement of that truth and that your partner is not crazy.
Once you acknowledge your partner’s complaint, you need to articulate an awareness of their emotional experience. This awareness is also called empathy. Awareness not only of their complaint, but also their pain, their anger, their disappointment. Awareness that if you were in your partner’s shoes, you might feel the same. This is a critical step. It is impossible for your partner to truly forgive if they do not feel understood.
Your apology should include some commitment to change. Some actionable change. You might start with a promise to “try harder,” but to that I’d say...try harder. Commit to more attention and intention when it comes to your partner’s complaint. It’s not a promise of perfection, but of effort and action. You might consider a single small change that you can make daily or weekly rather than emphasizing some overarching personality change. The secret to longterm relationship success is the small things that put equity into the relationship bank consistently over time. When the bank is full, the negative incidents don’t have as much power.
Speaking of forgiveness, I think you need to ask for it. You may not need to say, “Will you forgive me?” But you may need to ask for grace, a second chance, permission to get back on track. I think it’s also important to acknowledge the difference between “hurt” and “harm.” Just because your partner is hurt, doesn’t mean you intended to harm. You can ask for forgiveness for the “hurt” without needing to be a villain. I’ve seen many people avoid apology because they didn’t intend to cause pain. That’s not really the point. The point is that you need to enter into a state of connection with your partner and you may need to ask for help
This last part is for the person receiving the apology. There really are only two appropriate responses to an apology, and they both begin with “Thank you . . .” The first is: “Thank you, I accept your apology and I forgive you.” The second is: “Thank you, your apology means a lot to me, and I still need time to process what happened.” If you want to get the relationship back on track, you have to close the deal respectfully and gracefully. If your partner shows up with a thoughtful, authentic, apology, you owe it to them, and to yourself, and to the relationship to show up as well. AND, if you’re willing to accept the apology and forgive your partner, you need to be willing to lay down your complaint and leave it behind. It’s simply not fair to bring up a past pain if you’ve agreed to move forward.
Obviously these steps will vary based on the severity of the offense. And you may have to go through these phases a few times. But if you’re committed to repair, if you’re open to healing, if you’re both interested in getting back into a healthy, whole, happy relationship, these steps will help.