Being able to apologize effectively is an essential skill for both partners in any relationship.
Unfortunately, in my line of work, I don’t see a lot of good apologies happening. It’s one of the topics I coach people most on, because there are a lot of bad habits that couples tend to fall into regarding attempted apologies.
This can lead to contempt between partners (one of the harbingers of the end of a relationship), as the apologizer feels they are being treated unfairly when their apology is not accepted, and the receiver of the apology feels as though the apology is not genuine.
In order to achieve the ideal result of an apology, which is typically the other person’s acceptance and forgiveness for your actions, there are a few things one should pay close attention to. I’ll break them down here.
The importance of physicality
When making an apology, it’s important that you have a clear sense of what you are doing with your body and your face. Your partner will pick up on physical clues about your true intentions, so be mindful of your facial expressions, your body language, and your proximity to your partner.
Are you eye to eye? Are you standing higher than them or sitting down? Are you making eye contact? Are your arms folded or your fists clenched? These are all elements of your physical presence that can shift the perceived tone of your apology and therefore how it is received.
The most effective physicality when presenting an apology is to be at the same eye level, situated within 3-4 feet of your partner, paying active attention to their comfort and threat level so you can adjust your positioning accordingly.
They need to be able to clearly see your face, so that they can see you are authentically remorseful of what you did.
Stating your apology definitively and plainly
The more you run on and explain your position or justify what you did to your partner, the more it sounds defensive, and your partner is more likely to shut down. Saying something like, “I’m sorry for saying this, but I did it because…” actually negates the value of the original apology.
It is important to understand that just because you’ve said the words “I’m sorry” does not actually mean you’ve apologized. For an apology to be genuine, you need to acknowledge both what you did and how it affected your partner, and apologize for it without trying to justify your actions.
This shows your partner that you actually care about them and their feelings, and that this apology is for them rather than for you.
Wait for it to land
We live in a culture of rapid back-and-forth communication. We are generally not comfortable with silence, so it’s kind of part of our human condition to not want to tolerate that vulnerable, uncomfortable pause after you’ve said you’re sorry.
However, this is an important discomfort to overcome in the case of an apology. Once you’ve apologized, you need to pause and allow it to land for your partner. Let them absorb the apology and process it however they need to. Giving them space to think without rushing them shows your partner that you are authentic, committed to resolving their hurt feelings, and taking the issue seriously.
If you ramble, allow your face to betray impatience or annoyance on your part, or try to rush their response or acceptance of your apology in some way, then it instantly becomes disingenuous. Your partner will feel as though you are prioritizing receiving their forgiveness over actually resolving the issue in a healthy way.
The receiver must honor the good faith attempt
Apologies are, in some ways, a two-way street. Just as there is a skill to be learned regarding giving a good apology, there is skill in being present, open, and intentional when receiving one.
It can be hard to remain present in your partner’s attempt to show remorse because you are stuck replaying the hurt and the negative feelings. There isn’t always a lot of space to take in new information or new feelings, or to even be able to see the other as someone who isn’t threatening or trying to hurt you further. This makes it difficult to actually shift out the hurt and allow healing in.
Inviting the part of you that is replaying the hurt to relax, provide space, and allow safety to be reestablished is not easy, but it is necessary in order to honor your partner’s attempt to connect and heal with you, and to increase the likelihood of arriving together at a place of repair. You can do this by actively taking pause, reflecting, and assuming the best intentions from your partner before responding.
If you need help resolving communication issues around apologies in your relationship, reach out to me here: https://ryanginn.com/contact/