Estimated reading time: 7 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 flood 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. Yet, if your partner accepts your apology, it can remove the negative effects of hurt and even strengthen your relationship in the long run.
Here are three steps to making an effective, whole-hearted apology.
Step 1 – Talk respectfully & take responsibility
First, if you are the hurt partner, you must talk respectfully about your thoughts and feelings. You must be in a good enough, Functional Adult mindset so you can describe 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 a good enough Functional Adult state, make your apology at a time when the way in which you speak will help 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, their healing process includes figuring out how to be with you after you’ve hurt them. By taking responsibility for your 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 your hurtful behaviour?” Remember that the effectiveness of admitting wrongdoing will be undone if you suggest that your partner shares the blame.
Step 2 – Express remorse & demonstrate empathy
Express remorse if you hurt your partner. Say the powerful words “I’m sorry for doing…” To apologize effectively you must express healthy guilt, otherwise known as remorse. 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 relationship or culture. Unhealthy guilt is shame, which 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 your hurtful behaviour brought pain to your conscience and your partner. 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 trying to use a persuasion tactic for them to understand you.
To apologize effectively, your tone of voice and facial expression must reflect the remorse you feel. It’s estimated that 60%-90% of our communication is non-verbal. Remorse and healthy guilt are shown in your voice, face and body language. 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. Your hurt partner may wonder if the offense occurred because of your malice or indifference. As Brene Brown says, empathy demonstrates compassion and a desire to connect. Your genuine expression of empathy can help your partner understand that you have good will, and it reassures them that you care about them. You show empathy by listening well to what the hurt partner says, 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 and self-absorbed. It’s all about you & not about your partner. Unhealthy guilt/toxic shame and is all about you. You must be there for your partner emotionally and learn to put yourself aside if you want to apologize effectively. Watch this 11 minute video about how to do this.
Step 3 – Make amends & ask them what they need you to do
Make amends, take specific actions which your partner needs you to do now & in the future. 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 from you. 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 make sure you 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. You can’t change what you did in the past, but you can change what you do now & in the future. Contract with your partner about a specific behaviour you can start 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 a transgression from happening again. That’s how to apologize effectively.
But don’t over-promise. It’s better to give some of what your partner asks for rather than promise to do it all. 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 behaviour 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.
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 clearly with your partner. 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. Here are some quotes from it:
“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…” It’s about reconnection & reconciliation with the person you hurt.
“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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