I’ll never forget something I heard in one talk at a marriage preparation program. The program director, Father John, said, “If you’ve never heard your fiancé say ‘I’m sorry’ to you, then run away. Run as far away as you can, as fast as you can.”
Whew! It was perhaps not what the starry-eyed engaged couples thought they’d hear. Father John went on to say that in his years of working with married couples, including counseling couples who were seriously struggling, a theme that came up again and again was the hurt caused when one or both spouses simply refused to apologize, or did it in an obviously contrived way with words that lacked meaning. He knew more than one couple who ended up parting ways when the hurt this caused became too deep.
Apologies — being willing to say “I’m sorry” — are an important part of any relationship. But how do we apologize well, whether it’s to a roommate, family member, significant other or spouse? Here are a few tips — what to do, and what not to do — to help build a quality apology.
Don’t minimize the incident or act like it’s no big deal.
If it matters to the other person, it should matter to you. Let the other person speak for themselves and share their feelings in full, no matter how uncomfortable that may be. In her book, Hold me Tight, psychologist Sue Johnson explains, “You have to take your partner’s hurt seriously and hang in and ask questions until the meaning of an incident becomes clear, even if to you the event seems trivial or the hurt exaggerated.”
Do stay emotionally present.
This might be the hardest part of an apology. It’s difficult to listen and acknowledge when we’ve caused a loved one pain. It can be tempting to “check out” — either literally (by refusing to address the issue) or mentally (by not really listening). A particularly difficult conversation might need to take place in different segments, with breaks in between, if the emotional intensity is too strong. But the most healing part of an apology is entering into another person’s pain. This gives an apology the power to renew trust in the relationship.
Don’t assume that actions alone will substitute for an apology.
Expressing one’s contrition through actions (sending flowers, helping out in a tangible way) is commendable, but words are also (usually) needed. This is because it’s healing to hear one’s hurt acknowledged directly. Words have power both to hurt but also to heal: I’m sorry; I love you; I forgive you. Indeed, words can have sacramental weight, like in the sacrament of reconciliation (a model for apology, contrition, and forgiveness.) At the least, try to be aware of what the other person needs when the relationship has been damaged (and not what you’d prefer to give).
Do take full responsibility for your actions.
That may sound basic, but it’s all too easy to nudge the blame onto someone else, or onto the situation: I was tired; you were being unreasonable; I didn’t really mean it, etc. A simple but heartfelt apology can say, “I’m sorry that I caused you hurt.” Despite the circumstances or intentions, if the other person was hurt, an apology is very healing. In situations where both people feel hurt (as happens so often), then both can have a chance to give an apology and express forgiveness.
Don’t expect that an apology will be an instant fix.
Depending on the severity of the hurt caused, the other person might still need time after an apology to feel “okay” or to trust again. It would be uncaring to say, “I apologized, so what’s the problem? Let’s move on” when the other person needs more time to heal, again and again, in self-knowledge through the practice of apologizing. We all make mistakes. We all hurt the people we love from time to time. Getting in the habit of apologizing can help us realize more fully why we did what we did. Without shirking responsibility (see above), we can start to see why we act certain ways in certain situations. Is there a tone of voice that we’re especially sensitive to? Do we act poorly when we’re hungry, tired, etc.? Are there conversations that are emotional triggers for us because of past wounds? All of these realizations can help us grow as people and become less likely to hurt others.
Finally, always keep the big picture in mind.
The ultimate goal of an apology is renewed trust in the relationship. When done well, Johnson explains that an apology is “an invitation to reconnect.” It’s more than an empty ritual or “just” words.
We know that we will fail those around us from time to time, even daily! Being willing to apologize, and to truly put our hearts and selves into that process, builds up resources for lasting love.