A good apology can be powerful. Many people refuse to apologize, no matter what they have done, because they think that apologizing puts them in a weak position. Actually, the opposite is true. Refusing to apologize when you are clearly in the wrong makes you look like a stubborn child, a coward who dodges responsibility, or a fool who can't see the truth. Conversely, apologizing makes you appear stronger. You have the courage to face your mistakes and take responsibility for the consequences. You bring an end to the argument and choose the direction the conversation will take.
Knowing when and how to apologize is particularly important in the context of a long-term relationship. Disappointments and betrayals, however small, injure the relationship. If the injuries are left unhealed, they fester into resentment and distrust. The long term result is that the relationship grows more distant and less satisfying over time. Repairing the damage as soon as possible creates positive feelings and reinforces trust.
Start by expressing regret. Say "I'm sorry." This is effective only if you are sincere. If these words are spoken in a wooden way, with anger, with contempt, or in a way that attempts to shrug off the matter as inconsequential, the other person will not accept your apology. If you can't be sincere at this point, stop. (Later in the article I will address what to do if an apology isn't possible.)
- Acknowledge what you did. "I'm sorry I was so late." Take full responsibility for your actions. "It was very inconsiderate of me to leave you waiting."
- Show that you understand the consequences. "I was supposed to give you a ride, but instead you missed the party." Empathize with the other person. "I know you were looking forward to your friend's birthday, and you must have felt terrible about missing all the fun and disappointing your friend."
- If there is something you can do to make up for what happened, offer that. "May I call your friend and explain that it was my fault, not yours?" In the case of damaged objects, you can offer to repair or replace them. If money was lost, you can repay it. If you failed to do something that still can be done, set a time when you will do it. Perhaps there isn't any way to directly make amends. You can still show good faith with the next step.
- State what you will do in the future. "From now on I will make sure our calendars are coordinated so this can't happen again." Be cautious here. If you make a promise you can't keep, you destroy trust and render your apology worthless.
- Ask for forgiveness. "I hope you will forgive me." Don't expect or demand immediate forgiveness. The other person may need to calm down a little or think about it for a while first.
What If You Don't Know What You Did?
Sometimes people find themselves miscommunicating so badly that one person isn't sure what the problem is. Apologizing when you don't know what you're apologizing for makes no sense and is likely to make the other person feel that you don't really care and aren't paying attention.
In the heat of an argument, it may be difficult to get clarity. You might ask for a break so that you both can calm down. Then admit that you are a little confused and ask your partner to help you by explaining exactly what went wrong. You may need to ask non-defensive questions or rephrase what you've heard to make sure you have it straight. "So the party was on Tuesday, not Thursday?" Once you understand why your partner is upset, you can address the issue with confidence.
What if You Aren't Sorry?
It happens. Someone is really upset or angry with you, but you don't think you did anything wrong. You know exactly what the complaint is, but you don't think it's a legitimate complaint, and apologizing would be dishonest. Here's what to do.
- First, ask yourself if you are just being defensive and stubborn. If you broke a promise (or a vase), if you violated any kind of trust, if you were mean or insulting, if your behavior was inappropriate for the situation -- then an apology is warranted. It can be hard to admit to having done something wrong, but now is the time to be perfectly honest with yourself. Imagine what it would be like if the tables were turned and your partner had done something similar to you. Imagine how an impartial stranger would judge the matter, or what it would look like as a scene in a movie. Let go of the anxiety and false pride that keep you from admitting you made a mistake, see it from the other's point of view, and let yourself feel some regret for having let your partner down. Now you can construct an appropriate apology.
- It's possible that you are only partly in the wrong. You can still recognize the part that is your fault. "I couldn't help being late because my car had a flat tire. But I should have called you sooner so that you could make other plans."
- Perhaps you still don't think an apology is warranted. You didn't betray anyone, you didn't damage or lose something, and you didn't behave in an inappropriate or inconsiderate way. Maybe there was simply a misunderstanding, which you now understand and can explain to the other person. Maybe this is just an honest difference of opinion. I once had to tell my husband that I couldn't apologize for something because I didn't feel any remorse and didn't agree that I was in the wrong. I explained to him why I believed I wasn't wrong. He may still have disagreed with me in part, but he understood and accepted my point of view, and we moved on.
- Maybe the other person has unrealistic expectations. If your partner gets upset with you because you don't like the same breakfast cereal, or because you aren't a mind reader who can always anticipate and meet another's every need without being asked, or because a third party over whom you have no control said or did something, then you have a relationship problem that needs to be addressed.
Things to Avoid
- Don't make cheap excuses. If you hedge or try to wiggle out of it, you appear insincere and undermine the entire apology.
- Don't blame the victim. Statements like "You should have reminded me," or "You're not perfect, either" undo the apology and may start another argument.
- Really, don't blame the victim. When you say "I'm sorry your feelings were hurt" or "I'm sorry you misunderstood me" you are avoiding responsibility.
- Don't repeat the same offense. If you keep doing the same thing over and over again, your apologies are just insulting.
Things to Do
- Be brave. Don't make your partner wait or demand an apology. Recognize the need, step up, and do it.
- Be honest. Admit that you did what you did. Don't try to cover it up or divert the blame to someone else.
- Be kind. You can be honest without introducing hurtful details. "Actually, I'm kind of glad that ugly vase is gone" is not an appropriate comment to the person whose childhood treasure was destroyed.
- Make amends. If you can fix it, fix it. If you can't fix it, but can do something to make the situation better, do that. If you can't do any of that, make sure you express remorse and offer comfort to your partner.
Knowing when and how to apologize is one of the skills of mature, successful people. You can use it whenever the situation calls for it, at work, at play, at home. Handling your mistakes and transgressions in an appropriate manner helps build your image as an honest and responsible person. When you do the right thing, you set an example that makes it easier for your partner also to do the right thing when the tables are turned. The mutual trust you develop contributes to a strong, satisfying relationship.
Images courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net