A Therapist's 4-Step Guide To Actually Making Amends In Relationships
The point of an apology is to recognize hurt feelings, express regret about the mistake or misunderstanding, and provide a plan for avoiding a repeat. Yet the phrase "I'm sorry" conveys none of that. Merriam-Webster defines the word sorry as "feeling sorrow." Umm...sorrow about what? Sorrow about getting caught? Sorrow that a long-winded emotional conversation is suddenly necessary? "I'm sorry" is an empty phrase at best and rapidly turns toxic when the word if is thrown into the mix. Putting these words together is the ultimate exercise in how not to human:
- I'm sorry IF you were hurt.
- I'm sorry IF you took things the wrong way.
- I'm sorry IF you don't like what I did.
- I'm sorry IF you feel angry.
- I'm sorry IF...
Have any of these phrases ever made you feel understood, seen, validated, and secure in your relationship?
Why you should make amends instead of apologies.
Rather than offering apologies, making amends is the fastest path out of stuck in a relationship. Making amends is a concept from the 12-Step addiction recovery model. While I have issues with some of the practices of the 12-Step program, the concept of amends, as opposed to apologies, is a concept to which I fully subscribe. Making amends is appropriate whether you identify as an addict or not.
The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, one of the original addiction recovery organizations, says, "Think of amends as actions taken that demonstrate your new way of life...whereas apologies are basically words. When you make amends, you acknowledge and align your values to your actions by admitting wrongdoing and then living by your principles."
Apologies don't accomplish the goals of acknowledgment or alignment. The phrase "I'm sorry" is often hollow and devoid of meaning. Yet we're all taught from early childhood that when we hurt someone we're supposed to say "I'm sorry."
Saying "I'm sorry" does the trick when you step on someone's foot or forget to refill the water in the Keurig. Apologies are great for simple mistakes and common courtesy. Deeper relational cuts require something stronger than an apology, which brings us to the topic of amends.
How to make amends.
Amends-making is a potent way to cauterize wounds. I use a method I call the Four O's. You'll notice that the words I'm sorry are conspicuously absent. Implementing this tool can save you hours of therapy and thousands of dollars. Following this script dramatically decreases the need for lengthy and circular conversations.
The four O's:
- Own your behavior. ("I admit I did/didn't...")
- Observe how your behavior affected your partner. ("I imagine you must have felt...")
- Outline your plan not to do the behavior again. ("In the future I will prevent this by...")
- Offer to listen if they need to share anything else about your behavior. ("Is there anything else you need me to know about how this affected you? I'm willing to listen.")
What does this look like in action? Let's say Esa is an accountant with a major filing deadline. Earlier in the week, her wife, Davey, promised to watch the kids Saturday morning so that Esa could work. Saturday morning arrives. Davey runs out to Costco and loses track of time, and Esa's day is quickly swallowed by the feeding, cleaning, and entertaining required by their two young children and rambunctious chocolate Lab. A baseline apology would be for Davey to simply say, "I'm sorry I was late." A toxic apology would be if she said, "Well, I had things to do too. I'm sorry if you missed your deadlines, but that's just the way it goes."
Neither baseline nor toxic apologies convey empathy. Stay in a relationship long enough and you'll likely end up on the giving and receiving side of both. Before I learned this information, my apologies were more of a knee-jerk effort to avoid feeling guilty rather than an attempt at genuine relationship repair. Can you relate?
Instead of apologizing, if Davey had offered Esa an amends, it would sound like this:
- I totally lost track of time and did not keep my promise to watch the kids. (Own)
- I imagine you must have felt angry, confused, betrayed, and scared about missing your deadline. (Observe)
- In the future, I will not try to squeeze in my own to-do list when I commit to do something for you. (Outline)
- Is there anything you need me to know about how this affected you? I'm willing to listen. (Offer)
Using this technique accomplishes several tasks:
You validate to your partner that they are not crazy—the thing they are upset about did happen because of your action.
Using an empathy statement allows your partner to feel seen and heard. This creates a bridge for deep healing and repair. It also decreases limbic (emotional) brain activity and allows for reasonable and logical communication.
You are accountable for creating a plan so you don't repeat the problem.
Your partner can feel secure because now they know you have a plan to prevent the problem.
Offering to actively listen prevents the buildup of resentment and creates space for intimacy and repair.
Excerpted from The Science of Stuck by Britt Frank, LSCSW. Reprinted with permission from TarcherPerigee. Copyright © 2022.
Britt Frank, MSW, LSCSW is a therapist, teacher, speaker, and trauma specialist who is committed to dismantling the mental health myths that keep us feeling stuck and sick. Her work focuses on empowering people to understand the inner mechanisms of their brains and bodies. Whether she’s leading a workshop, teaching a class, or working individually with private clients, her goal is to educate, empower, and equip people to transform even their most persistent and long-standing patterns of thinking and doing. She is also the author of The Science of Stuck: Breaking Through Inertia to Find Your Path Forward.