Do you know how to repair your relationship through a sincere apology? What even constitutes a “sincere apology?” Which wrongs require a heartfelt apology? Mistakes are inevitable in every relationship. And how you repair those mistakes is essential to a healthy, successful relationship. Let’s first dive into the many types of apologies and their pitfalls. Then we’ll share how to make a sincere apology.

The 5 Types of Apologies 

In our work with couples, we’ve heard five common apology types. Keep in mind, this is not an exhaustive list nor has it been verified by research! This is 20 years of couples therapy experience talking. 

  1. The Too-Much Apology
  2. The “I’m-sorry-BUT…”
  3. The “I’m-sorry-IF…”
  4. The No Apology 
  5. The Sincere Apology 

The Too-Much Apology

This happens when one person apologizes for nearly everything. This person often takes responsibility for more than their fair share. They may, want to please others or prefer to keep the peace between people at all costs. If “I’m sorry” is said too often, the phrase may lose its meaning. The partner of the too-much apologier may no longer trust the apology. When this happens, the wronged partner tends to lean towards the “action speaks louder than words” stance. This can make it difficult to accept expressed, sincere apologies. 

The “I’m-sorry-but” Apology

This apology is ineffective. It has strong potential to a) lead to further conflict and escalation or b) withdrawal and disconnection. The apology could be real; however, once it is followed with a “but,” it sends the message of blame. This greatly minimizes the apology. For example, “I’m sorry I yelled at you, but if you would just tell me what you need instead of criticizing me, I wouldn’t get to that point.” The “but” shifts the responsibility and negates the sincerity of the apology. The person hearing this type of apology is likely to respond defensively. They may likely not accept the apology as valid or feel that it is sincere.

The “I’m-sorry-if” Apology

This is yet another ineffective apology. This apology is similar to the “I’m-sorry-but”as it shifts the focus to the person who has been wronged or hurt. The person apologizing this way doesn’t take ownership of their wrongs. This may sound like, “I’m sorry if you were offended by what I said.” What is missing is ownership of what occurred to make the partner feel offended; it invalidates the feelings of the partner.

The No Apology

You guessed it, this is when one partner does not apologize. This does not necessarily mean that the person does not feel remorse. There are a variety of reasons why a person may not apologize. It could mean that the person has difficulty recognizing that they did wrong and, thus, cannot express it. Perhaps they do not believe an apology is necessary because they assume their partner knows their intentions. Conversely, they may not understand their partner’s feelings, or they distract from the situation and say other things to make things “better.” For instance, instead of an apology you may hear, “Yes, I see your point. I’ll work on [that] or I’ll change [this].” Without a sincere apology, the incident will feel unresolved and may carry over into future conflict. 

The Sincere Apology

Spoiler alert, the sincere apology is effective in repairing a disagreement or conflict incident. This apology highlights that the person truly understands their role and contribution to the conflict. This person knows how to take ownership for their part in the matter. Additionally, this person considers their partner’s feelings and shows remorse. See below for the steps in making a sincere apology.

As humans, we are bound to mess up and, at the same time, we can make things right. However, making things better doesn’t always come easy. Sincere apologies take practice and if you follow the below four steps, you’ll have a better chance of making this effective apology.

The 4 Steps of a Sincere Apology

  1. Focus on your responsibility. Everyone has an influence in a relationship. First, reflect on how you contributed to the wrongdoing. For example, were you quick to judge, speak with a sharp tone, or interrupt often?  
  2. Take ownership for your share of the problem. Reflect on what you did, how you said it, or how you reacted. It’s crucial that you express ownership for your part to your partner. Do not say “but” or “if.” Stick with your own contribution. 
  3. Recognize how the other person feels. Does your partner feel unheard, ignored, betrayed, belittled, abandoned, sad, humiliated, or rejected? It’s important to understand your partner’s feelings. If you have difficulty imagining how they feel, ask, “When I did ____, how did that make you feel?”
  4. Show remorse. We all make mistakes. When you show remorse, you weave together your ownership of the wrong and the emotional impact it had on your partner.

When you put it all together, you’ll be ready to sincerely apologize. It may sound something like: “I’m sorry that I did/said _____ and that it made you feel _____. I can see that it hurt you. Will you accept my apology?”

Apologies in Real Life

The silent treatment, sleeping on the couch, or other ways of distancing can drive disconnection. Rather, making a sincere apology can lead to greater healing, trust, and deepen the bond within your relationship. Try the four steps to make a sincere apology. See what happens, how you feel, and how your partner feels. If you and your partner find the apology process difficult or uncomfortable, you may need more support. For instance, if your partner does not accept your apology, get curious – what is missing? In instances of infidelity, one apology may not suffice. Rather, ongoing processing of the mistrust and betrayal is needed. If you get stuck in the apology process, consider getting support from a licensed therapist. 

We can help with relationship repair and refining your apology process. If you are ready to schedule an appointment and live in Arizona, North Carolina, South Carolina, or Texas, we offer in-person and virtual sessions. Contact us to get started. 

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