Your definitive guide to saying “I’m sorry," and why it's good for you.

It is inevitable that you will hurt people that you care about—not because you are a “bad” human being, but just because you are a human human being. Therefore, happiness and success in your romantic relationship depends, in part, on your ability to offer a heartfelt apology. The following is an excerpt from my bookLoving Bravely: 20 Lessons of Self-Discovery to Help You Get the Love You Want:

My husband, Todd, finds my writing about apologies to be terribly amusing, as offering a heartfelt "I'm sorry" is, shall we say, challenging for me. Like all of us, I remain a work in progress. I have learned that when you roll your eyes and put your hand on your hip as you say, “I’m sorry,” you negate an apology entirely. I also have learned that the degree to which I am able to greet my imperfections with gentleness is the degree to which I am able to apologize with full eye contact, steady hips, and an open heart.

Alexandra Solomon Ph.D.Alexandra Solomon Ph.D. is a staff Clinical Psychologist, a member of the teaching faculty in the Marriage and Family Therapy Graduate Program, and a Clinical Assistant Professor of psychology at The Family Institute at Northwestern University. In addition to her clinical work with couples and individuals, Dr. Solomon teaches graduate and undergraduate students. One of her courses is Northwestern University’s internationally renowned “Building Loving and Lasting Relationships.

Editor: Nadeem Noor

Here are some ideas to keep in mind:

  • You can offer a heartfelt apology if the impact of your action is that you hurt someone, whether or not you intended to hurt them. Intent and impact have little to do with each other.
  • You can apologize for something even if you think the other person should not feel hurt, and even if you would not feel hurt if the roles were reversed.
  • Your apology does not mean that the other person is simply an innocent victim. We often hurt others because we feel they hurt us first, but it turns out this does not really matter all that much. Your apology means that you are taking responsibility for your part. At a different time, you may ask your partner to acknowledge and apologize for how his or her actions hurt you.
  • When you apologize, you are acknowledging to yourself, to the other person, and to the entire universe that you know you are not perfect. The more deeply you embrace your imperfections, the happier and healthier you will be. So apologizing helps your partner, it helps the relationship, and it helps you.
  • If you say, “I’m sorry, but…” — and then offer an explanation, an excuse, or a counter-complaint about the other person — that “but” negates the entire apology. That “but” is the verbal equivalent of the hand on the hip or the eye roll. “I’m sorry” is a complete sentence on its own.
  • Try to focus your apology on doing, rather than being. In other words, apologize for your actions (“I yelled” or “I forgot”), instead of apologizing for who you are as a person (“I am angry” or “I am neglectful”).
  • Sometimes we say “I’m sorry,” when we should be saying “thank you.” For example, you call your partner in a panic because you received a negative review from your supervisor. At the end of the call, instead of saying, “I’m sorry I took up so much of your time,” try saying, “Thank you for being here for me.”

Amends Action

Some apologies need to be paired with action. An amends action is something you commit to in order to demonstrate your understanding of the impact of your behavior. In fact, research indicates that the acknowledgment of responsibility and the offer to repair it are the most important ingredients in an apology (Lewicki, Polin, and Lount 2016). Amends actions move you from talking the talk to walking the walk. I remember hearing an example of a man who gave up alcohol for a year as an amends action for cheating onhis partner. This was his attempt to embody his apology and, as the story goes, his action really helped his partner. She felt he was taking their healing journey seriously, which energized her to do her part — the difficult work of forgiving.

Another form of amends action is when a couple works together to figure out what needs to change in the space between them. For example, when there has been dishonesty about money, a couple may decide to grant each other access to bank account information. Or when there has been infidelity, a couple may create new and different boundaries, like sharing passwords or checking in more frequently when they are out separately. Amends actions foster trust when they are initiated by the one who is apologizing. They can breed resentment when the one who is apologizing waits passively to have “rules” given to him or her.

The Limits of an Apology

Even a heartfelt apology can only do so much. Know that your healing is not contingent upon whether the other person is ready to hear or accept your apology. If you are able to offer an apology in humility and truth, then you have reached the outer edge of what you can control. Attempting to “get them to listen,” even though it is driven by your pain and your shame, is a boundary violation, reflecting that you have exited your own business and entered the business of another.

Your business is to offer the apology. The other person’s business is to decide what to do with it. Stay present with your journey and your expanding awareness, trusting these to grow your ability to be more relationally skilled and better able to embody your truest self going forward.

Take a Step Toward Loving Bravely

Ask someone you trust to talk with you about what it’s like for him or her to give you feedback about your behavior. In other words, when you do something that hurts this person’s feelings, what is it like for him or her to approach you with it? How open or defensive does he or she find you to be?

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