Apologize With Meaning


Apologies are offered and accepted regularly in successful relationships. The question is, what are you —or your partner—apologizing for?

Meaningful apologies can have several different goals:

  • Acknowledging a partner’s pain
  • Acknowledging your role in that pain
  • Implying you’ll try hard to avoid doing the hurtful thing again
  • Requesting a resumption of warm feelings

Not every apology, however, is meaningful. When people say “I’m sorry,” and don’t know what they’re sorry for, the apology is a mere formality. It neither examines the present nor addresses the future. But people do it because they feel uncomfortable with a partner’s resentment or hurt, or they’re eager to resume friendly relations. An apology seems like the entry fee.

Similarly, people often say “I’m sorry,” but then explain why you’re wrong to be upset, or why they aren’t responsible for your pain. They make excuses: “I was really tired” or “things happen.” Such an apology acknowledges your discomfort, but does nothing to assure you that things will go differently next time. There isn’t much solace in this apology.

We should hesitate to accept such apologies. If the apologizer doesn’t know why you’re upset, and can’t give you confidence that he probably won’t do the same upsetting thing again in similar circumstances, why should you comfort the apologizer? By accepting an apology, you’re saying that he’s taken responsibility and you’re ready for reconciliation to begin. This removes the healthy pressure for him to examine what he’s done, the nature of the relationship and your respective needs.

On the other hand, some people take advantage of their status as the wronged party. They drag out the process of describing their wound: “If you don’t know, I’m not saying.” Sometimes they even deny they’re upset: “What’s the matter?” “Nothing.” These strategic moves are part of a power struggle, typically played by people who feel powerless.

Couples need terms of reconciliation, sanction and surrender for the myriad of conflicts, hurt feelings, passive hostilities and thoughtlessness that litter a relationship. People need to see these structures and routines as tools to make life smoother, not as things to use against each other.

Apologizing is an ongoing, normal activity in healthy relationships. Sometimes it’s an event, sometimes a process. Used in perspective, with an appropriate dose of humor, it can deepen intimacy.

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