A good apology can make a world of difference in repairing the rifts that all relationships encounter. But it's easy to miss the mark, leaving both of you confused, hurt, and perhaps feeling further apart than ever.
Use these tips to make sure that your apology is meaningful and reparative, bringing you and your partner closer than ever after you've had a disagreement or misstep.
Step 1: Empathize first.
One of the most common ways to have your apology fall flat is to rush right in with an "I'm sorry" before your partner has a chance to fully talk about what's happened and how they feel about it. It's important to understand and empathize with their experience before you move into an apology. Without this crucial step of being heard and understood, an apology can feel like a rush to move on, dismissive of your partner's concerns.
Take the time to hear your partner, letting them describe how they perceived the situation, how it made them feel, and what they think about it. Ask clarifying questions if you need to, but don't respond or rebut their points at this stage. This is not the time to be framing your response or defending your actions; this is the time to give them the floor and really see things through their eyes. By the end of this process, you should be able to see how their perspective makes sense—even if you don't agree with it.
Then, communicate this understanding. Describe what you're hearing without inserting your own point of view. Ask your partner if you've missed anything or whether there's more they want to add. Ask them if they believe they've been understood and if they're ready to move to the next phase of the conversation, where you'll start explaining yourself.
Step 2: Take responsibility for your contribution to the problem.
After you've made sure that your partner has been heard and understood, and after you've expressed your understanding of their position, it's time to examine your role in the misunderstanding, disagreement, or offense. It's worth noting that just because your partner is upset with you, that doesn't necessarily mean you've done something wrong. However, it's important to consider where you may have made mistakes, done hurtful things, or spoken in ways that created harm. Taking ownership of your actions does not mean you're 100 percent responsible for the problems, but you should take 100 percent ownership of the things you could have done better.
Drop your defensiveness and speak to what you could have done differently or better. Avoid "what about-ism"—i.e., "what about when you did that?" This is not the time to be pointing out your partner's bad behavior, especially about totally different topics. Stick with your side of the court and acknowledge your mistakes. Tell your partner if you misspoke. Admit it if you were trying to hurt them, even a little bit. Acknowledge your thoughtlessness, selfishness, or dishonesty. You are acting with integrity and earning respect if you can speak about the parts of you that are less than perfect.
Step 3: Apologize appropriately.
Once you've understood your partner's perspective and examined your role in the problem, you can apologize—if you're sorry. Let your partner know how you feel about what you've done wrong, how sorry you are, what you're willing to do differently in the future, and what you're willing to do now to repair the situation. Be specific about your contribution and exactly what you're sorry for. If you mean what you say, your partner will be able to tell; your apology will be effective.
It isn't helpful to say, "I'm sorry you feel that way." This is actually a statement of empathy, but it is worded as an apology, making it confusing and unsatisfying. In hearing that and thinking it's an apology, your partner may feel frustrated because it lacks any sort of accountability. These statements of empathy should come earlier in the process (see Step 2), and they are best worded without "I'm sorry" in order to be as clear as possible.
What do you do if you aren't sorry? An insincere apology is not helpful. If you truly believe there is nothing you would have wanted to do differently, then you can empathize with your partner and support them. Remember, it's possible to stand your ground and be kind, loving, and gentle with your partner at the same time. You can explain your perspective and why you believe you did nothing wrong while still remaining open to your partner's struggle.
All couples have conflict and misunderstandings. These bumps in the road are opportunities for understanding each other more deeply and bringing you closer together through the repair process. An ability to process the problem and apologize where appropriate will get you a long way in moving through difficulty more easily.
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