Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Knowing how to apologize effectively can help restore lost trust and wellbeing in your relationship. Trust that is violated brings pain to both partners.
For the hurt partner, feelings of betrayal can trigger a deluge of toxic thoughts and emotions. For the one who behaved in hurtful ways, apologizing can ease your fear of revenge or rejection.
Apologizing can never delete what happened. However, if your partner accepts your apology, it can remove the negative effects of hurt and even strengthen your relationship.
Here are three steps to making an effective, whole-hearted apology.
First, if you are the the hurt partner, you must talk respectfully about your thoughts and feelings. You must be in a “rational enough”, adult state of mind to be describing the impact of their hurtful behaviour on you and of your hurtful behaviour on them when you reacted. You must be speaking about your hurt, not from your hurt. If you’re not in an adult state, make your apology at a time when the way in which you speak will enable your partner to listen to you.
If you are the one who behaved hurtfully, you must listen well to the hurt partner and admit wrongdoing. Do not defend yourself. Take responsibility for some part of what your partner is saying – even if it’s only 1-2%. Do not get defensive and reactive. To apologize effectively, your acknowledgement of doing wrong helps your partner begin to feel reassured.
For the hurt partner, the healing process includes figuring out how to be with you, if you hurt them. By accepting responsibility for the wrong behaviours, you increase your partner’s hope that you’re trying to understand the problem. You’re addressing their unspoken question, “Can I move past my partner’s hurtful behaviour?” Remember that the effectiveness of admitting wrongdoing will be undone if you suggest that your partner shares the blame.
Express remorse. Say the powerful words “I’m sorry”. To apologize effectively you must express healthy guilt. Healthy guilt is different from unhealthy guilt. Healthy guilt is good. It means you went against your own moral code or the moral code of your culture. Unhealthy guilt is shame – it is unhelpful for you and your partner. Healthy guilt says “I did something bad” and focuses on the behaviour you did. Unhealthy guilt says “I am bad” and focuses on yourself and how bad you are. It is self-absorbed. Watch Brene Brown show the difference between healthy guilt and shame.
You must show that the hurtful behaviour you did brought pain to your conscience. For example, you might say “I know I lost your trust when I lied about …” This can help your partner understand that you care about them and how they feel. Your remorse must show you’re sincere and not using a persuasion tactic.
To apologize effectively, your tone of voice and facial expression must reflect the remorse you feel. Remorse is how you express healthy guilt. Reaching for your hurt partner’s hand or meeting their gaze with a look of love can show caring intention.
Demonstrate empathy for hurting your partner. A hurt partner may wonder if the offense occurred because of your malice or indifference. Empathy demonstrates compassion and warmth. Your genuine expression of empathy can help your partner understand that you have good will, and it reassures them that you care. You show empathy by listening well to what the hurt partner said, and verbalizing what you know about how your behaviour made your partner feel.
Do not focus on your shame and overwhelm – this is self-indulgent. This is unhealthy guilt/toxic shame and is all about you. You must be there for your partner emotionally and put yourself aside if you want to apologize effectively.
Make amends. If you are the hurt partner make sure you ask your partner for specific behaviours that would help you feel better. It you are the one who did the hurtful behaviour, don’t assume you know what the hurt partner needs or wants. For example, if you said something unkind about your partner, you could ask whether an apology right now and a promise to talk positively about them in front of other people in the future would show your respect for them. Ask them what they need you to do that would make your apology effective. If you had an affair, ask what you can do to repair and do the things that your partner said are meaningful for them.
Ask them how to make it better right now as well as in the future. Contract with your partner about a specific behaviour you can do or stop doing to help make the hurt better. You may pledge to not repeat your transgression or even revise the rules to help prevent the transgression from happening again. That’s how to apologize effectively.
But don’t over-promise. It’s better to give what you can of what your partner asked for. Ask yourself “What will this cost me?” Don’t focus on you and your pride. Things that you can truthfully give and that mean a lot to your partner are the important things to do. Assure your partner that you will improve your behavior according to what they need to help them heal from the hurt. Describe exactly how you will improve your behaviour. The goal in discussing the future is to restore your partner’s feelings of trust and safety. Watch this video with Terry Real on how to apologize.
Foundations of a successful relationship
Trust and respect are the foundations of a successful relationship. An effective apology goes a long way towards rebuilding trust and respect. You build trust by doing what you say you’re going to do, when you say you’ll do it. If you can’t deliver – renegotiate. Tell them why you can’t do it and offer an alternative. You show respect by taking responsibility for any mistakes you make and by practicing caring behaviours towards your partner. This is what makes a good team.
A true apology
Harriet Lerner, a researcher into apologies and relationships has some wise words to say about how to apologize effectively. Her book “Why Won’t You Apologise?: Healing Big Betrayals & Everyday Hurts” is very helpful:
“A true apology focuses exclusively on the hurt feelings of the other person, and not on what we’d like to get for ourselves, like forgiveness…”
“The good apology requires that we take clear and direct responsibility for what we’ve said or done (or failed to say or do) without any ifs, or buts, and without bringing up the other person’s crime sheet. It includes a sincere expression of empathy and remorse, a commitment to ensuring that there’s no repeat performance, and (when necessary) a reparation or corrective action that fits the harm done.”
“…the good apology may also require us to sit on the hot seat and listen with an open heart to the anger of the wounded party on more than one occasion. There’s no greater gift, or one more difficult to offer, than putting aside our defensiveness in order to listen to that sort of pain.”
What to do now
If you need help in how to apologize effectively and in repairing transgressions in your relationship, you may need an experienced relationship counsellor & coach. Call 0421 961 687 or email us to schedule an appointment. International callers should call +61 421 961 687.
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