5 Parts of a Meaningful Apology for Couples
We hurt the ones we love all the time. It’s usually unintentional, or we don’t see the impact coming, but when this happens in our close relationships, the sting can be especially deep and enduring.
I work with a lot of couples, and often there are metaphorical cupboards full of wounding memories that get pulled out in the midst of unrelated conflicts or disagreements. These can be small, one-off transgressions, or haunting events that are retold throughout the relationship – usually when one person is hurting or feels like the other is being reckless with their trust.
Whether it’s forgetting an important date, dismissing the importance of a dream, or a blatant betrayal of a vow, these things are difficult to forgive. Do people ever get over these injuries? Is it actually possible to truly move on from something that wounded the person so deeply?
There are no straightforward answers to these questions, but reconciliation depends on a number of factors including the conscious decision from each person to move forward. A key ingredient, however, is one that I think a lot of people have never really learned to do well: The apology.
We all know the value of an apology – when we’ve been hurt or mistreated, we want the other person to acknowledge it and tell us they are sorry. But why are we so bad at this? It seems that when it comes to offering an apology ourselves, we usually do a terrible job.
I think there are many reasons for this – however, one contributing factor is that we aren’t taught how to do this from our own experiences of being hurt and needing to receive an apology. Either we don’t receive one when we feel it’s necessary, or the apology we do receive is unsatisfying.
Consider these common forms of apologies that are unsatisfying:
- The justification. I only did it because I thought it would help you. The second kick when we get blamed for the impetus of the action in the first place.
- The quick exit apology. I’m sorry, let’s go get you a present. We can’t get past the feelings fast enough. If we just don’t talk about it, and cover it with something pretty, maybe it will disappear.
- The favour apology. Well, okay then [sigh]. I’m SORRY. Feel better?! If we put some money in the mistake jar, it will atone for all wrongdoing.
- The silent shame apology. No words, just sullen wringing of the hands, and waiting for the dust to settle. On the surface, it may seem like it’s meaningful, but it often leaves the hurt party feeling alone to declare the injury “forgiven” so that everyone’s misery ends.
All of these are missing meaningful acknowledgment and ownership of how one’s actions have impacted the other, and a true exploration of what (if anything) will rebuild trust.
The making of a meaningful apology:
The reality is that words on their own don’t do much. They matter, and often need to be spoken, but their worth rests on the emotions and actions connected to them. Apologizing is actually a process that may end with the uttering of some words, but the preparation is what really matters. Here are some steps you can take to make your apologies more meaningful:
1. Use words to accurately describe the impact of your actions.
If you have hurt someone you care about, take on the work of articulating your actions and their impact on the other person. Explain how you’ve affected them, that you notice their pain, and how you recognize the specific actions that are responsible for hurting them.
2. Let yourself feel the impact.
Pause and open yourself up to actually take in the other’s expression of pain. However their experience is expressed to you, put your justification, defenses, and worry aside long enough to let it register. Breathe, don’t crumble, and stay present.
3. Express your regret and sorrow – if they want to hear it.
Ask if they want to know how you feel. Forgiveness is a process, and it doesn’t always include receiving or accepting an apology. Your offer of one, however, is a necessary precursor to this possibility. Be authentic and patient. They have to be ready to hear the words for them to have a hope of landing properly.
4. Offer meaningful steps for change and follow through.
In an ongoing relationship, taking steps to rebuild trust and do things differently is a key part of repairing and rebuilding the connection. These steps have to be meaningful to you, as well as your partner. This may mean compromising by giving something up or starting a new pattern that is authentic and something you also believe in. This can’t become something you hold over the other.
5. Take care of yourself.
We all make mistakes, and we can all learn and grow from them. Being stuck in guilt or shame doesn’t help anyone, however don’t expect the person you have wounded to save you from these feelings. Do your own work to understand what influenced your choices. Become better, and offer that version of yourself to the other.
When we truly acknowledge a wrongdoing and offer an apology with the goal of reconnecting, there is an opportunity to turn the scar into a stronger bond. Apologizing is a humbling yet strengthening relationship skill that we can all get better at – that way we can contribute to better wellbeing for ourselves and those we love.
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