Fights happen in relationships. We get set off; we blame our spouses; we nitpick or we disappoint. Whatever the reason, conflict is natural in the best partnerships. We cool off, say we’re sorry and move on.
Except for when we don’t. The reality is that many of us are terrible at apologizing. We make excuses or sometimes we don’t apologize at all. And this kind of behavior could be harming our partnerships.
We’re not alone in finding it difficult to apologize. “Humans are wired for defensiveness, and none of us is immune from sliding into vague, slippery language that obscures exactly what it is that we are sorry for,” psychologist Harriet Lerner, author of Why Won’t You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts, tells me. But an effective apology is good for a relationship. According to Lerner, it “makes the hurt party feel safe and soothed in the relationship and restores connection and trust.” A bad apology does the opposite.
Are bad apologies hurting your relationship? Here are some examples of the most damaging kinds.
1. I’m sorry you feel that way
This apology avoids all responsibility. “There is no accountability here,” Lerner says. “You’re saying in effect, ‘I’m sorry you reacted the way you did to my perfectly reasonable behavior.’
A genuine apology focuses only on the wrongdoer’s behavior (what you said or did or failed to say or do) and not on the other person’s response.”
2. I’m sorry for ____, but…
This apology pretends to take responsibility, but ultimately blames the other person for the hurt that occurred for whatever reasons follow the “but.” “The word ‘but’ always implies a rationalization, criticism or excuse,” Lerner says. “It doesn’t matter if what you say after the ‘but’ is true. The ‘but’ makes your apology false.”
3. I’m sorry for whatever I did
“This apology is empty,” Lerner says. It doesn’t acknowledge what you did; it dismisses your responsibility to make it better, and it tries to hurry the other person’s forgiveness. “Hold your apology until after you have made the effort to clarify specifically what you are sorry for.”
4. I’m sorry for what I did, & you should be sorry for what you did
“A good apology focuses only on expressing responsibility and remorse for your part, even if you secretly believe that you are only 17 percent to blame,” Lerner says. “Save your complaints for later.”
5. I’m sorry; I’m so sorry; can you ever forgive me? I’m such an idiot; I’m so sorry; please, it’ll never happen again…
Lerner calls this over-apologizing and says that beyond being irritating, it also forces the person to whom you’re apologizing to stop and reassure you — taking the focus away from their hurt and your apology and effectively making it about your feelings instead.
6. I’m sorry for what I did; I’m such a disappointment
Lerner says apologies like this can be worse than no apology at all. “It’s a confusing communication,” she says. You’re saying sorry, but you’re also forcing the other person to disagree or comfort you, seemingly negating their original hurt.
What does a good apology look like? According to Lerner, it “takes clear and direct responsibility for what we have said or done (or not said or done) without criticizing the other person or bringing up their crime sheet.” It doesn’t have any ifs or buts. It includes the words, “I’m sorry,” and offers to change in the future and not repeat the same mistake.
Another important note: For the big apologies, don’t expect one to be enough. “A serious hurt or betrayal requires many conversations over time where we listen without defensiveness to what the hurt party wants to tell us and that we carry some of the pain that we have caused,” Lerner says. Try to let go of the desire to say, “I already apologized!” For real hurt, you may need to humbly do it more than once. “No apology has meaning if we haven’t listened carefully to the hurt party’s anger and pain.”