It's Hard to Say I'm Sorry...So We've Broken It Down For You

By Rachel Zar, LMFT

This is Gretchen. Don’t be like Gretchen. c/o Giphy

This is Gretchen. Don’t be like Gretchen. c/o Giphy

Learning to offer an effective apology is a key relationship skill that I encourage all my clients to practice, practice, practice. When done well, apologies are one of the most important parts of repairing after a fight, and they can leave your partner feeling heard, understood, and cared for. But not every apology is created equal. And there’s a very, very good chance you’ve been doing it wrong.

It’s time for a pop quiz:

Which of these apologies is most effective?

  1. “Fine. I’m sorry, OK?”

  2. “Whatever I did, I’m sorry for it.”

  3. “I’m sorry I did that, but I never would have if you hadn’t done the other thing first.”

  4. “I’m sorry I did that, but that’s just who I am.”

  5. “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

Answer: Gotcha! This was a trick question. None of these apologies are ideal. If you’re

surprised, read on for a break down of these common apology faux pas:

“Fine. I’m sorry, OK?”

This one is in the same category as, “Come on, I already said I’m sorry. Why aren’t you over this yet?” Even without hearing the tone of the deliverer, this apology just reeks of sarcasm and complete disingenuousness. It’s clear that this person is only offering an apology to get their partner off their back. If you don’t actually mean it, your partner will know, and the apology will leave them wanting more.

“Whatever I did, I’m sorry for it.”

If you don’t know what you did, how can you apologize for it? And how can your partner feel confident that you won’t do it again? If you find yourself offering up this apology, pause first, and try to understand why your partner is hurt. Your apology may not be able to come as quickly, but it will mean much more when it does.

“I’m sorry I did that, but I never would have if you hadn’t done the other thing first.”

“I’m sorry I yelled, but I only did it because you were being rude.” “I’m sorry I forgot to do the dishes, but you weren’t clear that you wanted them done today.” Have you ever heard the saying, “Everything before ‘but’ is bullsh*t?” Adding a disclaimer after an apology completely cancels out the positive affect of the apology itself. Making excuses for your actions means you’re not truly taking responsibility for your part in things—regardless of what came before or after. Resisting defending your actions is tough, but the better you get at doing so, the more of a lasting impact your apology will have.

“I’m sorry I did that, but that’s’ just who I am.”

Once again, “everything before but….” This apology gives absolutely no confidence that you will attempt to do things differently in the future. It does not indicate that you are taking any responsibility for your actions—or even that you feel you have control over them.

“I’m sorry you feel that way.”

Ah, the most common of the apology mishaps. Saying sorry for someone else’s feelings is actually just a tricky way of putting the blame back on then. A simple fix to this one — “I’m sorry my actions caused you to feel that way.”—makes all the difference.

So now that you know what not to do, here’s a handy cheat sheet for creating good apologies. The best apologies include all three of these parts.

“I’m sorry for doing this specific thing.”

Start by acknowledging what you are apologizing for—and being as detailed as possible. I promise, even in an argument that leaves you sure that your partner is in the wrong, there is something you did that warrants an apology. Find that thing. Own that thing. State that thing out loud without disclaimers. If you’re not sure what that thing is, listen to your partner. They’ve probably been trying to tell you.

“It was wrong for these reasons, and it hurt you in this way.”

Next, show your partner that you understand the consequences of your actions—especially the impact they had on their emotions. If you’re not sure, get curious. Remember that you can hurt your partner even without meaning to hurt them. Saying “I know that I hurt you,” is important, and it’s very different than, “I was trying to hurt you.” Intention doesn’t always match impact.

“In the future I will do things differently.”

Finally, assure your partner that you plan to take their pain to heart and do things differently next time. Don’t make empty promises here. Really think about what you could do differently.

Remember: an apology does not guarantee immediate forgiveness. Your partner may still need some time to process the hurt, and you may still need a few more conversations to iron out what went wrong. But the better you get at following the recipe above, the more likely your apology is to actually make the impact you desire.