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Effective Apologies

From our earliest childhood conversations, arguably most of us had been periodically instructed to apologize for upsets we caused others. “Mary, say you’re sorry for hitting Johnny,’ “Jason, say you’re sorry for bumping into your sister,” “Ella, tell Mommy you’re sorry for throwing your toys at her.” “Danny, I need you to apologize for saying you hate your brother.”

We learned to utter the words even as we may not have internalized the need to apologize. We learned that sometimes our apology ended the discussion on a positive note, but at other times a playmate or family member didn’t seem satisfied by it. We may have experienced a certain indifference by our young playmate to focus on our apology, even as our parent was adamant that it must be communicated. Or as young children, we may have been totally perplexed by the expressed need to apologize for something. (I remember once hearing a mother in a grocery store check-out line instruct her four year-old daughter to apologize to the cashier for having shared the observation, “She’s fat, Mommy.” (The young child undoubtedly didn’t understand why she had to apologize for a simple, true observation!) In short, many of us undoubtedly experienced some degree of confusion around apologies growing up; and we may well have entered adulthood never truly having learned the ‘anatomy’ of a well-meaning and effective apology.

Indeed, in my couples counseling sessions it is not uncommon to experience partners struggling with the issue of apologies. One partner might communicate in a frustrated tone, “I said I’m sorry….why can’t you let it go?,” Or perhaps he might ask with an incredulous tone, “How many times do I have to say I’m sorry?,” Meanwhile it’s not uncommon to hear the aggrieved party express, “I don’t believe she’s truly sorry,” or “I’m not sure I can accept your apology right away.”

So why do some apologies put the issue to rest for good, while others seem ineffectual? And why do some partners bring up decades-old hurts after apologies have been communicated through the years?

The answer lies in the ‘felt sense’ that is or isn’t communicated in the apology. An apology can run the gamut from simply being a rote-sounding stringing together of the two words ‘I’m sorry.’ Or it can be experienced as deeply felt remorse for a transgression….a sense that the apologist truly “gets’ the negative impact of his words or actions and wants to communicate that understanding empathically and sensitively. In the first instance of the more ‘mechanical expression’ of the words, the aggrieved party can be quite sure that the upset will happen again and again (i.e., the yelling will continue, her partner will continue to forget to do his agreed-upon chores; his wife will continue to complain about the friends in his social circle, etc .) Conversely, the more deeply felt expression of regret typically communicates a more thorough and heartfelt understanding of the hurt feelings associated with the transgression which, in turn, typically leads to a more genuine focus on the apologist’s changing his or her behavior, and the ability of the wronged partner to ultimately trust the sincerity of the apology, and move on.

This positive outcome cannot be achieved without a measured and focused discussion of the issues involved. Partners’ upsets must be listened to attentively and they must be validated. (Validation involves communicating that one understands what the other has just expressed. For example, “I get that when I fail to call you when I’m going to be late coming home you feel disregarded and unimportant.”) For this validation and attention to understanding the other’s feelings to occur—i.e. for partners to ‘lean in’ and try to understand how they have upset the other rather than resist, shut down, and/or defend, upsets must be shared in a non-blaming, non-shaming manner.

If you find that apologies don’t put upsets to rest and don’t lead to positive behavior changes in your relationships, several sessions with a therapist who focuses on communication issues can prove very helpful. Such sessions can guide partners to monitor their tone, language, and body language as they communicate upsets and/or practice caring validation of their partner’s upsets, thus enabling the sharing of gripes to evoke heartfelt apologies accompanied by positive behavioral and relationship change.

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