Benjamin Franklin once said that nothing is certain except death and taxes, but he could have added that in every relationship, people hurt each other. It’s a normal result of two partners negotiating all that comes with going through life together. The secret to getting past the hurtful moments is in the repair. And repair generally starts with an apology.
Sounds easy, right? Only if you think that simply saying “I’m sorry” is enough; much of the time it’s not. So here are the five steps you can take towards crafting a solid, meaningful apology.
1. Be direct and take responsibility.
An apology that includes the word “if” is not an apology. Imagine you’ve just said something insensitive and thoughtless, and your partner feels hurt. So you offer an apology which sounds like this:
“I’m sorry if what I said hurt you.”
Here’s the thing—you did hurt your partner. There’s no ambiguity here. It may not have been intentional but the fact remains that he or she is hurt. If you care about this development, it behooves you to apologize and be direct.
“I’m sorry I hurt you.” Now you’re acknowledging your partner’s reality. Adding an “if” to the apology has a distancing effect that appears to divest yourself of any responsibility. People hurt people in relationships; ideally, it is unintentional. But the apology should always be intentional and direct.
2. Acknowledge the impact of what you said or did.
Of the five steps, this may be the most important but the one that is often left out. Let’s return to the example in step one, where you said something insensitive and thoughtless. First you’ll want to acknowledge that you hurt your partner. Next, it helps to demonstrate that you know why it hurt:
“I’m sorry I hurt you. I understand those words reminded you of the critical way your father used to talk to you.”
Of course this is merely an example of what you might say. You will obviously be inserting the understood impact that is specific to your situation. And folks, if you don’t know what the impact of your words or actions are—ask! What was it that hurt your partner about what you said or did. How did they interpret your words? When you get the answer, reflect it back to demonstrate that you understand.
By the way, this step is critical in the aftermath of an affair. It’s not enough to apologize to your partner for betraying them. He or she also needs to hear that you truly acknowledge and appreciate what your cheating has done to them: i.e., made it difficult for them to trust, caused them sleepless nights, made them question the entirety of the your relationship, etc. Expressing your understanding of the impact of your actions will go a long way towards healing.
3. Express your commitment to do better.
Seems obvious, but what frequently gets left out of an apology is communicating your intention to not repeat whatever it is you said or did in the first place. Ideally, you won’t do it again. But let’s face it, you're human and you probably will do it again. That’s where expressing an intention will suffice:
“I’m sorry I hurt you. I understand those words reminded you of the critical way your father used to talk to you. I will work harder at choosing my words so that I don’t say something like that to you in the future.”
If your partner was Crocodile Dundee, he'd say “now that’s an apology!”
4. Keep it pure.
Don’t try to justify or rationalize your words or behavior, as in “I’m sorry I hurt you but you were making me really angry.” Within one crafty little sentence, you have essentially apologized and then walked it back. Even worse, you have shifted the blame to your partner. If you have a legitimate gripe, that’s fine; you have the right to bring it up and work it out later—just not when you’re apologizing and taking responsibility for your own behavior. Keep it pure and focused on what you have done.
5. Wait until you're ready.
Your partner can smell an insincere apology. That's when your words are saying "I'm sorry" but your face is still red with anger or projects total detachment. So take more time to think about the way in which you've hurt him or her, letting yourself calm down from what is making you reactive. By doing this, you will allow your words and affect to be congruent, and your partner will know you're truly sorry. Just, you know, don't wait until the next Olympics to do it. And finally, make good eye contact! You're not apologizing to the floor; looking directly at your partner bolsters your sincerity.
Incorporating these five steps into your apology will not always be easy, but just wait until you see how much better it feels to the receiver of it.
You won't be sorry.