Breakdowns happen in relationships. Despite our best intentions, there are times in relationships when one or both partners is careless with words, feelings get hurt, anger is unfairly displaced, there is insensitivity to the other’s feelings, we do or say things that we regret or that cause harm, and more. This is not to justify or excuse such transgressions, but to acknowledge the inevitability of these situations. It is of course a good idea to do everything that we can to minimize the frequency and severity of our transgressions, but when they do occur, the next best thing is to exercise damage control. This process generally involves the repairing of trust that has been broken or perceived to have been violated.
While sometimes a simple “I’m sorry” may be sufficient to restore goodwill after a breakdown, in many cases, particularly those in which there has been a more serious upset, it will require more than this to restore goodwill.
A sincere apology involves more than making a statement of regret over having caused pain or difficulty for another person. It is, of course, a good beginning, but it will often require more than this to complete the process.
There are several components involved in the making of an effective apology, including:
Acknowledgment of having acted or spoken in ways that have either deliberately or unintentionally caused emotional, mental or physical harm or pain to another. This requires the willingness to accept responsibility (not to be confused with blame or fault) for having contributed to a diminishment of trust, respect, or goodwill in the relationship.
Sincerity: A sincere apology is one in which the speaker has no agenda other than to heal whatever damage may have occurred in the relationship as a result of his or her actions or words. Their words need to be honest and heartfelt and expressed without an effort to coerce, deceive, or manipulate the other person’s feelings.
Non-reactivity: In the course of offering an apology, the offended party may interrupt an apology while it is being offered. This is an excellent time to resist the temptation to insist that they allow you to finish or to “correct” or challenge them in any way. Your partner may have a lot of emotion to express, feelings that sometimes have to do with other, previous unacknowledged disturbances. Giving them a chance to express themselves without fear of reprisal, reactivity or defensiveness on your part will provide you with an opportunity to demonstrate that you really do want to hear from them and that you’re not just there to get them to listen to you. Keep in mind that your job here is not to be right or to defend yourself (even though the impulse to do so will likely be very strong) but to have your actions embody your words. In this case that requires a willingness to, if necessary, hold your tongue until your partner has had their say, even if that means allowing them to interrupt you or disagree with your perceptions or memories. After they have had their say, they will, in all likelihood, be more open to hearing from you. Try to be patient.
Get clear about your intention before you even begin the conversation and stay true to it. This will help you to stay on purpose without getting sidetracked by distractions that inevitably come up in heated conversations. Remembering that your job isn’t to prove that you’re right, but rather to demonstrate that you can be trusted to listen non-defensively and respect your partner’s feelings, and to show that you truly care about them and what they have to say. Keep in mind that silence does not equate with agreement, and even if you are not arguing with someone, you’re not necessarily seeing everything their way, but rather you’re simply giving them a chance to express their perspective.
Be curious, rather than adversarial. Find out what your partner needs from you in order to find resolution to the upset rather than assuming you already know. Even if they don’t tell you anything that you don’t already know, your sincere interest in their needs will communicate the kind of caring that they need in order to begin to trust you again.
Don’t be quick to ask for forgiveness. Your partner may experience your request for forgiveness as just one more thing that you are trying to get from them. They probably will need more time than you think they “should” in order to adequately process their feelings. Keep in mind that forgiveness is a process, not an event. Apologies can be and often are an essential part of that process. While the words of your apology are important, equally important, if not more so, are the behaviors that you demonstrate during and after the process of apologizing. As the saying goes, talk is cheap; it’s actions that really tell you what a person’s true intention is. There’s a difference between talking the talk and walking the walk. But whatever your metaphor of choice happens to be, the key to effective apologies has to do with the depth of your sincerity to embody your words in a way that shows your partner that you have learned and integrated some critical lessons that you both will continue to benefit from.
Apologizing gets easier with practice, and if you’re like most of us, you’ll get plenty of opportunities for that, and each one can strengthen the qualities that great relationships require, including compassion, vulnerability, patience, commitment, and intentionality, to name a few. In the process it becomes possible to not only restore love and goodwill to your relationship, but to upgrade it beyond the level where it had previously been.
So don’t try to avoid acknowledging your part in future breakdowns (and there will be more), but rather, take advantage of the opportunities to demonstrate your commitment to your partner and your relationship by providing sincere apologies when they are called for. If you can offer it to your partner before they express their disappointment or upset, so much the better. Remember: Apologizing doesn’t make you less of a person; it is more likely to make you more worthy of respect in the eyes of others. It is a reflection of integrity, not of weakness. And it will enhance, not diminish, the strength of your relationship. Are those enough reasons to apologize?