The Essentials for Healthy Relationships

The Right and Wrong Ways to Apologize

I grew up in a small town in the mountains of western North Carolina. Every home town has its own unique set of rules. In my town (and the south in general), we were taught to say, “I’m sorry”. If we had done something wrong, or if anyone thought we had done something wrong, we said the words. It didn’t matter whether or not we were actually sorry for what we had done. Saying, “I’m sorry”, was just what you were expected to do. Better to force the words out now, than deal with mom and dad later.

I’ve noticed that as adults many of us haven’t gotten any better with our forced apologies. Lots of people still do and say hurtful things and then toss out an “I’m sorry”, as if it will make everything better. Some people believe that the words “I’m sorry” are magical words that take away all of the consequences of their behavior.

It’s understandable. Nobody likes to hurt someone or make a mistake. When we realize that we have, we want to get past it as quickly as possible. As painful as it may be, however, a quick “I’m sorry” just isn’t enough. Here are a couple of things to remember that will allow you to relate in a better way when you’ve hurt someone:


Explain Why You’re Sorry

I’m sorry or I apologize is only the beginning of a what needs to be a longer sentence. If you’ve messed up, be honest and own what you’ve done. Be clear about what it is that you are apologizing for. If you aren’t sure what you’ve done, don’t just say “I’m sorry” to get the tension to go away. Ask what you’ve done, and if it was wrong, apologize for it. Also, take a second and think about how your words or actions have affected the person you have wronged. When someone believes that you understand how they feel, they are more likely to forgive you and move forward in the relationship.

Make a Visible Change

Words are good. Actions are better. If you have hurt someone, as much as you are able, do something to set things right. We won’t always be able to make things right, but when we can we should try. Also, once you’ve apologized for something, you should work hard to avoid repeating that behavior. Saying, “I’m sorry” only to repeat what you did over and over again is pointless. If there is nothing that you feel you need to change, you probably shouldn’t be apologizing. Which brings us to the third point:

If You Aren’t Sorry, Don’t Apologize

Apologizing isn’t a tool to make conflict go away. It is a way of acknowledging what is or is not acceptable in your relationship. If your spouse doesn’t like how loudly you play your music, but you see no problem with it, don’t apologize just to end the tension. If you apologize you are saying that playing your music loudly is wrong and that you don’t plan to do it again, which is probably not what you are really saying. You are saying, “I want you to stop being mad, and I plan to play my music again when you are not so mad.” Having those hard conversations about what we feel is acceptable and what is not in our relationships is one of the things that make relationships strong. So don’t avoid it!

Having the courage to own what we’ve done and apologize is an essential relationship skill. It’s more than saying “I’m sorry”. As hard as it is, owning what we’ve done wrong can strengthen our relationships. So, be sorry if you must, but be honest no matter what. Your relationships will grow because of it!