A True Apology l November-December 2014
Who among us doesn’t sometimes say the wrong thing or act in a way that triggers — even accidentally — a spouse’s hurt feelings? And who among us, after a misstep, doesn’t want to be forgiven? We want our partner to move on without harboring ill will. Research has found that an authentic apology increases the likelihood of being forgiven, and reduces feelings of anger in the “injured” spouse. It seems that we’re viewed as a more valuable partner through our acts of apology, and our injured spouse feels less risk of being hurt again if we apologize.1
But a proper apology can be a tricky thing. Many of us say, “I’m sorry if you felt badly” or “I’m sorry if I upset you.” Why the “if”? The “if” conveys that we’re not sure we believe that our partner’s feelings are really hurt. Or the “if” conveys that we’re not sure we did anything wrong. Apologies with an “if” usually leave an injured spouse feeling dissatisfied or disappointed.
“I’m sorry that you feel this way” is another common expression that doesn’t cut it as an authentic apology. In this wording, too, there’s no acknowledgement that we did< anything wrong, which is precisely what an injured spouse wants to hear.
A true apology begins with three words: either "I'm sorry I …" or “I apologize for …” A true apology acknowledges that something I said, or something I did, was insensitive or unkind or triggered hurt, fear, embarrassment or humiliation. (The fact that the outcome — our partner’s distress — may have been unintentional on our part doesn’t preclude the need for an apology.)
Here are some well-phrased apologies:
- "I'm sorry I spoke in a hurtful way."
- “I apologize for shouting and frightening you.”
- “I’m sorry I broke our agreement.”
- “I apologize for losing my patience.”
- “I’m sorry I rolled my eyes in the way you dislike.”
Without the three words — “I’m sorry I …” or “I apologize for …” — an apology is unlikely to promote the kind of forgiveness that heals emotional wounds and helps partners move past those tough moments all couples encounter.
1McCullough, Michael E. et al. "Conciliatory gestures promote human forgiveness and reduce anger in humans." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Volume 111 Number 30, pages 11211-11216.