“I am sorry”. Three magical little words make such a huge difference in marriage. Nothing softens the heart and restores hope like a sincere, heartfelt apology. Many people ask me how to convey genuine apologies that are certain to be heard by their partner in the spirit with which they are being offered. This has led me to reflect a bit on the subject of effective apologies.
Our society seems to have moved toward “quick–fix” apologies. Often, I find myself thinking apologies are just words strung together to sound like “I’m sorry”, but with no impact or behavioral component. And thus, apologies have lost some of their power. Because of the enormous healing potential of apologizing I want to review some essential ingredients of the effective apology.
Steps for the effective apology:
1. Personalize it for the person wounded. – e.g., “I am sorry I hurt …YOU”
2. State the specific problematic action – e.g., I am sorry I hurt you … by breaking my promise to call you last night.
3. Elaborate on all the hurtful aspects you are aware of – e.g., I know you worry about me when I go on these overnight trips and this just made it worse. Especially last night when you were preparing for your stressful conference you needed the peace of mind I could have provided by calling you. (It is good at some point to ask for any elaboration of the hurt caused by your action and then incorporate that information into the overall apology.)
It is VERY important not to slip in blaming remarks here or it will invalidate the whole apology (e.g., “If you weren’t such a worrier”) .
Also, it is very important not to minimize or excuse the behavior. If any of these things happen additional apologies will be required to set things straight.
4. Express again regret and remorse about hurting this person. “I’m so sorry I have hurt you.”
5. Label unintended hurt –it sometimes helps to add (if it’s true) “I never intended or wanted to hurt you in any way.”
6. Express the desire to make amends. Explore appropriate actions that would atone or make up for your wrongful action and make a specific commitment for the behavioral compensation. (This step prevents apologies from being just superficial words). For example, “I would like to make it up to by…” or “ I really want to make this right, can you help me think of some specific things that I can do…”
7. Discuss prevention/recurrence of hurtful behavior.
8. Repeat apology as often as needed (especially for larger wounds like infidelity).
When apologizing for minor problematic behaviors, you can do a quick apology by using steps 1, 2, and then either steps 6 or 7.
At some point you may want to ask your partner if he/she would be willing to hear the mitigating circumstances (if there are any) from your perspective. But if you try to offer those before or during the apology it will likely dilute the effectiveness of the apology if not incur further hurt and misunderstanding requiring further apologies yet!
In regard to how “heartfelt and genuine” delivery of an apology is accomplished, I recommend the following:
1. Ask your partner for a moment of their time.
2. Sit down or stand facing each other.
3. Make soft eye contact.
4. If possible have some form of physical contact like holding one or both hands.
5. Speak in a gentle earnest tone of voice with a soft facial expression.
6. Begin and end with an expression of love/affection/positive regard.
Some examples of ineffective apologies:
- “ I’m sorry” (shallow and superficial).
- “ I’m sorry you felt upset (puts blame on the injured party).
- “I apologize if I did something to offend you” (stiff, feigned innocence, defensive).
- “If it’ll make you feel better, I’m sorry” (back-handed and insincere).
- “ I’m sorry for whatever I did” (vague, non specific).
- Any apology followed by the word “but”.
Any apology that does not contain the specific injurious behavior that you engaged in. (“I’m sorry” just does not work. It is as if you are hiding behind the words. It makes you a lot more vulnerable to say “I’m sorry for hurting you by doing ‘x’”. And, your vulnerability is the healing balm you must offer the person you have injured in order to achieve the most effective healing.)
You will likely be uncomfortable when making a really sincere effective apology. That is the sign that you are leaving your comfort zone in the service of putting yourself in the shoes of the hurt person and candidly looking at your own flaws and responsibility in the matter. This type of empathy is a heart-warming gesture, and promotes emotional intimacy and love.
Apologies for Infidelity
Apologies are only part of the overall healing process following infidelity. But a good, thorough, heartfelt, empathic apology (repetitive if necessary) is a great place to start the reparation process.
For more information on apologies or how YOU might formulate an effective apology for your partner or if you want more information on getting the healing process started after infidelity, contact Dr. Barnett at 919.403.0400.
There is more information available on this topic, if you still have questions not answered by this section please call me. I’m usually available within 24-48 hrs to answer questions, schedule phone coaching sessions or office coaching/therapy sessions, or direct you to other resources.
Remember: Research / statistics on infidelity indicates that receiving counseling after the discovery of an affair is the single best predictor of recovery.