Remember that time you invited all of your girlfriends over to binge-watch Orange is the New Black and forgot to mention it to your partner who was looking forward to watching the game? Or the time you happened to eat the last piece of his birthday cake? I’m not saying it’s always YOUR fault, but there are certain moments in a relationship when it might be helpful to apologize. So just how important are apologies and what’s the best way to go about making them?
Dr. Guy Grenier, a psychologist and marital therapist, says apologies serve a lot of important purposes. First, they’re an indication that someone isn’t right all of the time and that they acknowledge that. Second, apologizing can make clear that you’re concerned about your partner’s welfare, which is a basic, but fundamental, point that needs to be made over and over in a relationship. Third, apologies can help to de-escalate conflict.
A key part of apologizing is a full acknowledgement of what you did wrong, and why your partner is upset. “We act the way we act, but it lands on our partners in different ways and it’s important to understand how our partner receives our actions,” says Catherine Morris, a psychotherapist. “When we do something, there’s an immediate reaction from our partner related to their sense of feeling loved and okay. We can have an almost visceral alarm that goes off – even if our partner has no idea that this is happening.”
Though most of us are eager to ease the tension (read: let’s stop this fussing and fighting and get back to snuggling on the couch), that doesn’t mean that an apology is always warranted. “It’s not appropriate just keep saying ‘I’m sorry’ for everything,” says Morris.
“It’s appropriate when you become aware that your partner is truly wounded. If you’re not sincerely sorry, it should invite some dialogue.” Morris adds that you should, at least, be interested in understanding why your partner is wounded. Too many arguments are focused on each partner breathlessly trying to get his or her own point across without actually listening to the other person.
It’s also worth noting that not every conflict requires an apology — especially if it’s not sincere. People who live together can expect their needs to clash on occasion, and that doesn’t mean you should apologize for having your own set of needs. “Apologizing can be really bad communication,” says Dr. Grenier. “There are people who apologize for everything, and it can be related to assertiveness and self-esteem issues. It can send subtle messages that my needs are not as important as yours.”
And what about when it comes to accepting an apology? While most of us are eager to move beyond conflict, that’s hard to do if you feel that the apology isn’t sincere and that your partner is simply trying to placate you. Dr. Grenier suggests that it can be helpful if we abandon our obsession with forgiveness.
“Forgiveness says you did something wrong but that’s okay,” he says. “And it’s not. It requires the forgiver to lie to both themselves and the other person. The reality is that people who love us will hurt us — but we don’t have to say that it’s okay. Reconciliation is possible, and acceptance of imperfection and that our needs are at odds with other people. We shouldn’t apologize for our own needs, but we should apologize for being thoughtless or careless.”
In the end, as Morris points out, being sorry for something isn’t just about words; it’s also reflected in your behaviour. “When my daughter was young, she would do something and then very quickly say sorry,” says Morris. “I would say that I’m more interested in seeing your behaviour change. It’s easy to say sorry, it’s harder to spend the time to understand why you’ve hurt someone and to work on not hurting them again.”
Saying sorry isn’t always easy, so here are some tips:
1. The best way to apologize is “quick and intense,” according to Dr. Grenier. The longer you wait to apologize, the longer you prolong a conflict.
2. Don’t say you’re sorry if you don’t mean it. “Apologies have to be real,” says Morris. They have to be from the heart and the person being apologized to has to feel like the person apologizing gets it.”
3. It can help to show genuine interest in why your partner is hurt; try asking some questions about why they feel the way they feel and what would make them feel better.
4. Take full responsibility for hurting your partner’s feelings, and explain what you might do differently to avoid doing the same thing in the future.
5. Sometimes, sorry isn’t enough. Work on truly understanding why your partner feels hurt and trying to change any hurtful patterns.
Originally published December 2014, updated March 2017.