This is how to actually apologize.
Send this to someone who can’t say “I’m sorry.”
We can’t talk about repair without talking about how to apologize, because the truth is that very few of us know how to do it effectively and without ego. And without knowing how to apologize — and I mean really apologize — we get stuck in a cycle of conflict. And we come apart.
I hear this over and over again: One partner hurts the other — so often about the mundane parts of life, like when they stay late at work when there’s a date planned. You feel hurt that you got deprioritized, and your partner then feels guilty, and they apologize.
And then they apologize again.
They get stuck in a disempowered state of guilt, and so they apologize from that position — not from an effort to repair what’s broken between the two of you. All of a sudden, you feel like you have to take care of them and to make them feel better.
More conflict brews. And it’s no wonder. They aren’t making it about repair. They’re making it about them. It’s a straight shot to resentment.
It doesn’t have to be this way. I can teach you how to apologize and actually repair.
Let’s start with what might not be obvious: The words “I’m sorry” often don’t have much meaning. On its own, saying you’re sorry usually doesn’t rebuild connection, and it definitely can’t attend to the emotional bruises your partner might be feeling. An apology is in our body language. It’s in our tone. And it’s in the emotional weight of what we say. Let’s break it down.
An apology with impact has three parts.
1. See your partner and their pain.
We’ve discussed how a critical need for people in relationships is to be seen and understood. So when you attempt to apologize, acknowledge what your partner is feeling. Tell them: “I see your pain. I see what you’re going through. I accept my role in it, and I don’t want to make you feel that way.”
2. Mention the change in behavior.
Accountability means making a concerted effort to change behavior, and your partner deserves to know what you’re doing to avoid causing them pain next time. You can tell them the steps you’re taking — anything from integrating dates into your work calendar to counseling. Or, you can rewrite the situation with how you wish you’d handled it and say “I wish I’d taken stock of my day earlier and communicated to you that I was underwater. Next time my day gets beyond my control, I’m going to check in with you much earlier in the day, and if work gets in the way of our plans, I’ll come up with a concrete way to make it up to you that very night. Even if it’s just bringing home your favorite snack while we watch your favorite movie — I still want you to know how much I want to spend time with you.”
3. Express your gratitude.
So much of the antidote to conflict is gratitude. So when you apologize, consider a thank you instead. Thank your partner for how they adapted when you dropped the ball. Name their actions. It could sound like: “Thank you for being so patient with me while I get through this project. Thank you for being the best smile imaginable to come home to and for holding down the fort. Thank you for riding this out with me, even when it’s uncomfortable. I couldn’t do this without you.”
The truth of the matter is that we unconsciously break each other’s hearts even when we don’t mean to. We can love someone and want to take care of them and still be careless or hurtful. We’re human, and we make mistakes. But we can tap into our self-awareness when it’s time to repair, and we can work with our partners to change the patterns that are weighing us down.
I’ll be back next week to keep talking about repair. As we head into these last days of 2023 — when so many of us are wading through all manner of conflict — think about the tools you have. You know how to tap into your self-awareness. You know how to take a breath before you fly off the handle. You know how to be skeptical of your survival strategies. You’ve got this.
See you next week!