Most people are good at apologizing, depending on the context. If you bump into someone in the office break room, “Sorry!” If you accidentally spill something at the grocery store, “I’m so sorry!” In close relationships, though, apologizing can be one of the hardest things to do. Apologizing can feel difficult because of our go-to reactions we may use in these moments: defense, confusion, and guilt. 

Most of us do not walk around intending to hurt our partner’s feelings. You may just be going through life, and then, wham! You realize that you really upset or offended your partner. The problem is not the reactions themselves but rather which one ends up dominating. 

If you find apologizing difficult (and who doesn’t?!), we broke down how your apology may be dominated by defense, confusion, or guilt. We also share a few considerations to help you work around these common reactions and ensure you apologize sincerely.


You get defensive instead of apologetic. 

After you realize you’ve hurt someone, your first reaction might be being defensive. A knee-jerk defensive reaction can often result in pushing your partner away or a non-apology apology.

A defensive reaction materializes in an insincere apology that may sound like: 

  • “I didn’t mean it like that!”
  • “I’m sorry if I hurt you.” 
  • “Well, I’m just the worst person in the world!” 
  • “Sure, I did that this one time, but look at all the other times I didn’t! Can you just get over it?”

When you realize someone has been hurt because of something you said or did, you want to defend yourself and your intentions. Yet, if you dive deeper into your defensive reaction, you’ll probably uncover feelings of guilt, embarrassment, or shame. The feelings get in the way of crafting and executing a sincere apology, which can often make for unapologetic communication. The faster you can “move on,” the faster you don’t have to feel guilt, embarrassment, or shame.

How to avoid getting defensive

Before you default to a defensive reaction, take a moment to think how you could instead voice accountability. Instead of “I didn’t mean to,” you could say, “I can see how I didn’t fully think it through how that would make you feel. The last thing I want to do is to cause more stress. I’m sorry.” 

For a slam dunk, tell your partner how you could have done things differently or what you’ll be more aware of in the future. 


You feel confused that you caused the hurt. 

Confusion is another possible reaction. There are at least two perspectives in any one experience: yours and theirs. You may have experienced the situation one way, but to your surprise, your partner experienced it differently. It makes sense that you would feel confused.

Your confused reaction may sound naive or unaware, like:

  • “Why are you even hurt by this?”
  • “What did I say? Are you serious?” 
  • “I’m so confused—what’s the big deal?”

It is also important to understand that your partner also has their own perspective. This doesn’t mean one of you is correct while the other is wrong. You both may have experienced different things, heard things differently, perceived a tone differently, or feel sensitive to what just happened. All that to say, it’s not only important to share how you feel but also be open to your partner’s point of view. 

How to avoid leaning solely on confusion

Remember: Each of you has your own perspective. If you feel confused, you can explicitly share as much with your partner. For example, “I feel confused. Can I share how I experienced what just happened?” 

When each of you has time and space to share your perspective, confusion can more easily evolve into understanding. This takes strong communication skills, such as active listening. Listen to understand, not correct. Try to suspend judgment and don’t interrupt, even if you don’t agree. Your goal is to lessen your confusion and gain a better understanding. 


You feel guilty, or even, ashamed.

One study found that if you feel guilt, you are more likely to apologize. Guilt tends to elicit remorse or regret, so you are more likely to apologize. However, if you feel shame, you might be less likely to apologize. Shame tends to tap into a deeper view of self, such as “I’m bad” rather than “I did something bad.” If you feel shame, you may be more likely to withdraw to avoid or lessen your feelings of shame. 

A guilty reaction may sound remorseful:

  • “I feel terrible that I forgot it was our anniversary. I know this is really important to you, and I blew it. I’m sorry.”

A shame response may not be spoken or if something is said, they are really down on themselves:

  • “I am the worst person. I can’t get it right. Why do you even want to be with me?”

How to be aware of guilt vs shame

Self-compassion plays a vital role in navigating feelings of guilt or shame. Let’s face it: as human beings, we’re all prone to making mistakes, doing things we regret, and inadvertently causing pain to others. It’s important to recognize that perfection isn’t attainable, and it’s normal we’ll stumble along the way.

Equally crucial is acknowledging and working through any negative beliefs we hold about ourselves, such as feeling inherently “bad” (aka, shame) when we’ve made a misstep. By allowing ourselves to experience guilt and extending self-compassion, we pave the way for genuine remorse and the capacity to empathize with those we’ve hurt. This process sets the stage for offering a heartfelt apology.

Shifting our perspective from “I’m a bad person” to “I’ve done something hurtful” is transformative. It enables us to confront our own discomfort, tolerate it, and ultimately, take responsibility for our actions. By integrating self-compassion and self-reflection, we become better equipped to navigate the complexities of human relationships, accept mistakes as part of being human, and create a path for repair and healing.

Slow down for an effective apology.

At home, try noticing and tracking your responses. Self-awareness is such a helpful tool in trying to change our reactions. See if it’s possible to breathe and slow down when you’re in a situation where your partner is expressing hurt. See if you can change the order of your responses to:

Confusion: “I’m confused. Can we slow this conversation down? I want to understand how I hurt your feelings.”

Guilt: “I feel bad. I didn’t mean to hurt you, but I understand how I did.”

Explanation: “I really wasn’t thinking being late would cause that much distress, or I would have called. I get that it would be irritating to have cooked dinner for me, and by not coming home when I said I did, it made you feel taken advantage of or that I  don’t appreciate you. I truly do appreciate you and your thoughtfulness. I will be more aware of letting you know if I am running late or if my plans change.”

When you slow the conversation, you and your partner can better understand each other’s perspectives and have clearer paths to move forward. This article shares more about how you can ensure you’re apologizing sincerely. 

How do you apologize? 

Couples should understand that there is room for defense, confusion, and guilt. Yet if defense and confusion run the show, and guilt doesn’t make an appearance, your partner won’t feel like their hurt mattered to you. The last thing you want is for your partner to hear an insincere apology or non-apology. Your apology language matters! 

Apologizing is an important part of being in a relationship. We’re human, we’ll make mistakes, but it’s just as important to own our part and make a sincere apology for the relationship to heal. 

Our practice offers in-person appointments in Charlotte, NC, and Carefree, AZ. We also have virtual sessions available for those who live in Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, or Texas. Contact us to get started.