As a therapist, I hear my clients say, “I’m sorry” frequently. It is done when a person wants to move on to a different topic, when they are not truly remorseful, when they want to pacify their spouse, or when they are feeling defeated. None of these apologies are good because the underlying meaning is not authentic. This does not improve a relationship.
A loving relationship requires some show of remorse for a couple to draw closer to each other. This shows genuine care and concern for how the other person thinks and feels. But when an apology is done badly, it can contribute to the deterioration of the relationship. Here are some inadequate examples.
- “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” This is a passive-aggressive apology done to silence the other person and move onto a different topic. It minimizes what the other person has experienced.
- “I’m sorry but…” “But” is a qualifier. If a person cannot say sorry without adding a but, then they are not sorry. This is excuse making.
- “I’m sorry for … not …” The “for” is usually followed by a tiny infraction while the “not” is about the main event. This statement minimizes a person’s responsibility and passively-aggressively places blame.
- “I’m sorry, but you did…” This is casting sole blame onto the other person. The apology is window-dressing and is not authentic.
- “I’m sorry about that.” A general and broad apology that is not specific is a sign that the person is unwilling to take any responsibility and therefore cannot be held accountable for future actions.
- “I’m sorry.” Saying this while laughing is mocking the other person and how the event impacted them. This is also done to minimize their contribution and make the other person feel small in comparison.
- “I’m sorry.” An overly emotional apology done with dramatic crying is equally not authentic. This creates a show and makes it about them and not the person who is hurting.
- “I’m sorry your feelings got hurt.” When done right, this statement can be kind. But sometimes it implies, “you are too sensitive” which is not empathetic.
- “I’m sorry I bothered you.” This is not an apology. It is said out of fear of confrontation and sometimes said to get the response, “you are not bothering me”. It reveals deep insecurity and does not show respect for the other person.
- “I’m sorry but I don’t agree.” Again, this is not an apology. Usually, this is said to take the sting out of an overly aggressive attack that is about to come next.
- “I’m sooorrrrry.” Saying this in an overly exaggerated and sarcastic manner is a passive way of not apologizing and an aggressive way of mocking the other person’s feelings.
- “I’m sorry.” When this is said in moments that there is nothing to apologize for, it takes away from the moments when remorse is needed. Often it is said when a person feels embarrassed or is deflecting an uncomfortable emotion.
- “I’ll say sorry when you say sorry.” The sets up the apology to be a competition where one person needs to be right and can only admit to wrongdoing when someone else goes first.
- “I’m only going to say sorry once.” This is a controlling statement said to demand immediate forgiveness without waiting on the other person’s timing.
- Not saying, “I’m sorry.” There are times when an apology is needed but a person refuses to say the words. This reveals an unremorseful and prideful heart.
- Saying “I’m sorry” too many times. While multiple apologies might be needed in order to demonstrate remorse, saying it too frequently causes the apology to lose its stickiness.
- Buying gifts instead. Rather than verbally confronting, some choose to buy expensive gifts. This covers up the offense without any real acceptance of responsibility or willingness to change.
- Doing things instead. Sometimes the guilt is too much for a person to bear so they will busy themselves with useless activity as a distraction. The problem is that the relationship is not repaired.
Despite all these poor apologies, there have been times when it is done right. A heartfelt apology can change the dynamics of a relationship, heal wounds, generate intimacy, and tighten feelings of love and support. Here are the five ingredients for a genuine show of remorse.
- “I’m sorry for…” Begin by stating specific actions without any qualifiers or blame shifting. Sometimes is it better if the apology is written out first to ensure transparency and authenticity.
- Done with appropriate emotion. There not be too much emotion like wailing or too little like a stoic or flat affect. Rather, a show of empathy for the pain that was caused can be seen on a person’s face.
- Sorry is followed by a change in behavior. Real remorse is not about a momentary action, it is about a change in long-term behavior. This takes time but an apologetic person is willing to endure the wait.
- Sorry is used judiciously. Say “I’m sorry” only when there is something to apologize for and it is really needed. This demonstrates that the apology is really felt and meant.
- Sorry is followed with a reasonable resolution. It is not enough to apologize if there is no resolution that follows. This should be a resolution that is mutually beneficial and unites two people together.
When couples follow the five steps above and avoid an inadequate “I’m sorry” real change in the relationship takes place. It is beautiful to witness a contrite heart and a genuine desire to move forward in love and connectedness.