How to Make a Meaningful Apology

how to make an apologyYou know what happens. Something you did has made your partner frustrated, disappointed, angry, or annoyed with you. So in an attempt to make things right, you apologize. But it backfires. Your partner gets even more upset. What’s going on here?


Understanding that moments like these represent ruptures in your relationship is critical, because it lends a purpose to the apology and illuminates what makes for a meaningful apology. What do I mean when I say “rupture”? You can read all about rupture here, but to summarize, a rupture in your relationship happens when there’s a lapse in connection with your partner. You might liken it to a dance; you and your partner are in your rhythm together when you step on her toes. The dancing stops, and you wonder how you both can get in step again. A proper apology is how you start. 


A meaningful apology, then, begins the work of repairing the rupture and restoring the connection between you and your partner. Depending on what happened to cause the rupture, a good apology may be all you need for repairing the relationship. So what do you need to do to make your apology meaningful?


  • Take responsibility for the offense. Describe what you did that hurt your partner, and don’t fudge on the details or leave anything out (except excuses). Acknowledging the hardest truths now will help you rebuild trust with your partner. Explain your actions thoroughly and accept responsibility.


  • Acknowledge how you hurt your partner. Getting your toes stepped on hurts. When you notice and acknowledge your partner’s pain, you’re communicating that you’re interested in his feelings and want to understand what he’s experiencing. Empathy goes a long way when you’re apologizing, so adopting an empathic stance is a must. And if you don’t know how your actions affected your partner, suspend the apology until you do.


  • Express sincere regret. An apology isn’t meaningful unless you actually mean it. Anyone who’s heard something like, “I’m sorry that you feel that way,” or “I’m sorry if you’re still angry” knows that. From a religious perspective, sincere regret is repentance—a “turning about” of the heart. There’s a reason that the Bible often associates repentance with a “broken and contrite heart.”


  • Roll up your sleeves for repair work. You need to make efforts to clean up the consequences of your offense and ensure that the you won’t offend in the same way again. Depending on the nature of the offense, you may need to spend a lot of time and effort here, as healing and restoring trust and dignity don’t happen quickly.


  • Don’t apologize too early (or too late). Many partners make the mistake of apologizing too quickly. Saying “I’m sorry” too soon guarantees that the apologizing partner will not understand the pain of the hurt partner, making the apology meaningless.


Apologies are a fantastic way to avert an argument and instead create a connecting, relationship-repairing dialogue about each of your feelings and perceptions.

Jeremy Mast

Jeremy is a licensed marriage and family therapist (CA LMFT90961) in private practice in Ventura, California. He helps those struggling with drugs, alcohol, and out-of-control sexual behaviors awaken to new possibilities for their lives. He lives with his wife, son, and cat in beautiful southern California.

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