Confession: I’ve always sucked at apologies.
I thought that “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” but perhaps I took that too literally. In my defense, a severely dysfunctional childhood left me predisposed to making bad apologies—if I made any at all.
The coping mechanisms I learned early on led me to one conclusion: never admit you’re wrong or take any responsibility for your part in fuckups.
Between my fragile self-esteem, the need for external validation from my partner, and a morbid fear of imperfections, a heartfelt apology was never my thing. Side-stepping, evading, and shifting blame onto my partner came much more naturally to me.
I was a pain in the ass to argue with, and getting a straight-forward apology from me was out of the question.
Instead, I would likely offer these convoluted variations of an apology:
“I’m sorry you feel that way.”
I really am—if you didn’t feel that way, we wouldn’t be in this predicament in the first place. If only you saw it my way. This clever evasion allows us to utter the words “I’m sorry” without actually apologizing for anything. Instead of owning our behavior, we shift responsibility to the other person for their feelings.
“I’m sorry that happened.”
I mean it too because now I have to spend time practicing verbal judo while avoiding any mention of wrongdoing on my part. Also, noticeably missing will be even a vague hint at taking responsibility for anything.
“I’m sorry you misunderstood me.”
Since I can do no wrong, the only logical explanation is that you misunderstood me completely. Please allow me to explain…
“Yeah, but you…”
Your blood is sure to boil as I list all the ways that you actually caused my poor behavior. I’ve been saving them up for just this occasion. Yes, I’m keeping score, but someone has to win.
“I’m sorry you took it the wrong way, what I really meant was…”
Simple misunderstanding. If only you were paying attention, you’d realize that hurtful thing I said was really a compliment. I’m innocent here.
“I’ll apologize if…”
If you’re a fan of conditions, have I got a deal for you! I will surely apologize this one time if you apologize for all the things you’ve ever done to me. Sounds like a fair compromise.
“I’m sorry you’re so sensitive.”
I was just kidding! Why would I ever say something so insensitive if I wasn’t joking? Why do you always blow things out of proportion? Also known as a “nuclear apology,” this one is sure to annihilate the next several days of your relationship.
Sincere, authentic apologies are hard work. They require us to practice empathy and vulnerability, skills that many of us never learned. Also difficult is acting like a grownup, owning our sh*t, and putting the needs of the relationship above our own discomfort, which can be much easier said than done.
Whether we’re afraid of our imperfections or stubbornly unwilling to admit we’re wrong, nothing good will come from the kind of apologies listed above—in fact, we’ll only make things worse.
We often underestimate the impact of apologies on our relationships, and not just the romantic ones either.
No one would argue that how we handle conflict directly impacts the quality of our relationships. We can easily see that being conflict avoidant can be just as harmful as being aggressive and handling problems poorly. Ineffective apologies can be equally detrimental to our relationships.
When we fail to take responsibility for our mistakes, we significantly damage our relationships. While a lack of self-awareness and accountability prevents us from growing and learning from our experiences, it also communicates to other people that we care more about our comfort than the relationship. People who apologize poorly (or not at all) often don’t have strong intimate bonds with others. After all, how can we when we’re unwilling to ever acknowledge our faults or attempt to make up for them?
For those of us with a history of trauma, we tend to be inexpert at handling discord at all, and we’ll likely need to learn the fine art of apologizing:
#1 Admit we screwed up.
This is often the hardest part. We need to swallow our pride and admit that we made a mistake. While it doesn’t hurt to identify our triggers and share some of the motivation for our actions, we need to be careful that we don’t use an excuse to avoid taking responsibility.
#2 Acknowledge that our actions were hurtful.
If we’re going to apologize the right way, it means experiencing the discomfort of admitting we hurt someone else. This lets the other person know that we’re aware there were consequences for our actions.
#3 Actually apologize.
I’ve heard people admit they screwed up, acknowledge that it was hurtful, and skip right over any sort of remorse for their actions. Unless we want to apologize next for a poorly worded apology, we need to make sure to actually express contrition here.
#4 Attempt to make it right.
We can’t just thrust a dozen sad grocery store flowers in the other person’s face and call it a day. Maybe say it with chocolate. Or better yet, we can ask them what they need and give them the opportunity to be heard. When we’re in the wrong, we don’t get to dictate the terms to make things right.
#5 Address actions for the future.
We need a plan to fix this problem going forward. The worst apologies happen when someone keeps saying they’re sorry they’ve hurt us when they have no intention of stopping.
We’re not perfect—and we’re not trying to master a perfect apology. A sincere one is enough.
Every relationship will have its challenges. As humans, we’re absolutely going to make mistakes. But when we do, we get to choose whether we’ll try to repair our relationships, or if we’ll allow those mistakes to continue to chip away at them.
If we can’t offer a sincere apology accompanied by changed behavior, we might as well save our breath because all we’re really saying is—sorry not sorry.
Ultimately, the only way to repair the damage we’ve done is to own our part in what happened, express remorse and ask forgiveness, and promise to work on our behaviors.
Of course, apologies won’t always fix the problem. Broken trust, for instance, requires more than an apology to repair. But apologizing shouldn’t be about gaining something from the other person, for instance, their forgiveness. We do it because it’s right, not because it’s expedient to get what we want.
Apologizing isn’t meant to be a quick fix for the relationship but a sincere attempt to make things right, to work on the relationship and build intimacy, and, most importantly, to work on ourselves.
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