People rarely look at it this way, but apologies are actually opportunities. When executed well, they can deepen a relationship and bring you closer than ever before. But the apology is only half of the equation. In order for a relationship to be restored, the person receiving the apology needs to answer.
Answering an apology in the right ways can significantly strengthen the bond between the people involved. As a therapist, I encourage couples to spend as much time on the answer as the apology itself.
So the next time your significant other offers you a sincere attempt at reconciliation and repair and asks for your forgiveness, try to remember that if you express these five things, you can better repair and even enhance the relationship.
Just like with apology, we focus on a bunch of A-words as part of the process:
The first thing you need to do when your partner apologizes is offer some appreciation. The simplest way is to say “Thank you . . . ” Thank them for making the effort. Thank them for being aware of your pain. Remind yourself that the apology may have been difficult and likely required tapping into some humility. Respond to their humility with grace and gratitude, if only to soften your own pain by trying to move beyond it.
Once you express your appreciation to your partner, it’s time to accept the apology—or not. Yeah, that’s right. Acceptance is ideal, but you may still have an unmet need with regard to the issue at hand. If you don’t think you can accept it yet, you can say, “It means a lot that you’re apologizing, but I still need you to understand a little more of my experience.” Remember this isn’t about making someone pay, it’s about repairing a fracture. It’s a chance to make sure things don’t fester. So either accept the apology, or ask for what you still need so that you can accept it. If and when you feel like your injury has been fully acknowledged and understood, let them know their apology has been accepted.
This is a subtle but ultimately essential piece for answering an apology. Most of the pain that lingers in a relationship is because people don’t agree about what happened. It’s rare, of course, that two people will ever have the same perspective on a given event, but that’s not what I mean by agreement. Agreement is when two people understand that something happened, it sucked, it damaged the relationship, but we fixed it together. We understand its impact, and we’re united in our willingness to put it behind us. We’re committed to protecting one another from something similar in the future. Without agreement, the stories of the conflict can come back to linger, they gain power, they inflict pain—and more pain. Minimally, both parties should at least agree that they don’t want to entertain that pain.
Obviously, any apology that doesn’t include the promise for change—or at least hope for it—will ring hollow. So to make sure that change actually happens, focus on how you and your partner can create accountability to help you avoid future conflict. Address the question: How will you get ahead of similar issues in the future and protect the relationship from situations that may feel dangerously familiar? Because accountability is at the heart of any committed relationship, you should feel some sense of responsibility for being on the hook for one another.
When responding to an apology—your answer should include some warmth. More importantly, it’s appropriate and even critical to reinforce physical intimacy. (Physical intimacy is different from sexual intimacy, but there’s a reason that “makeup sex” is helpful in marriage, too.) Physical, sexual, and even verbal affection (e.g., “I love you”) can be a powerful sealant in the apology and answering process. It reminds you and your partner that, in the end, you both want the same thing: more closeness and connection.
The pathway to repair isn’t complicated, but it does take some time and commitment to both your partner and to your relationship. Ultimately, I really do think that an injury to any relationship can be a good thing when the emphasis is on restoration. So if someone you love has hurt you, consider working through these steps to do your part in that process.