Apologizing to the Ones You Love

In my last post I talked about how I was surprised that my friend had apologized to me. It's possible you might get the impression that I follow that silly idea that "love means never having to say you're sorry.

Far from it. Love means that you absolutely say you're sorry – but you have to mean it. Like the word "love" or "fiscal conservative", throwing it around too much without backing it up can cause a loss of meaning. It's a good idea to think about what you actually mean when you say "I'm sorry".

Let's review that, ok?

The Steps of Sorrow

  1. Acknowledge what you did. This is probably the most important part, because it's how you avoid following "I'm sorry" with words like "if" and "but" and "you." We're not talking about hypothetical here, we're not making excuses, and we're talking about you, not the person you're apologizing. The only words that should follow "I'm sorry" are "that I…" Then say what it is you did, in as simple and plain a way as possible. Because you might be wrong, and you may have to talk more before you find out what you actually need to be sorry for.
  2. Acknowledge the damage. This can be as simple as "now the car has a dent in the fender" or as complex as "You don't trust me any more". But especially if this is someone you care about, they need to know that you can see the consequences of your actions.
  3. Explain how you're going to try not to do it again. This is also pretty vital; if you don't plan on doing something different than what you're already doing to prevent this from happening again, there's no reason for your love to believe that you're sorry or to feel safe. It's also important for everyone involved that the word "try" is in there; saying "I'm going to make sure…" sounds all romantic and stuff, but it's pretending you have a lot more control over life than anyone actually does. You're human.
  4. Ask if there's anything more you can do. Related to that "humans aren't omniscient" idea, you may think you know what you need to do, but you also may be wrong. Ask the person what they need, and make sure that "nothing" is an ok answer. It's not their job to figure out your atonement! It's also possible they will ask you to do something that you can't do – and in that situation, it's fine to say "I'm sorry, I can't do that. Is there anything else?" Apologizing doesn't mean you don't still get to have your boundaries.
  5. Keep your promises, both to yourself and to your loved one who you've wronged. That's the difference between an apology to an acquaintance and a loved one: the acquaintance may never know how good you are at changing your behavior, but for your partner, it's going to be pretty obvious if you're making an effort to actually do the things you said.

What's Not in an Apology

Notice there is no "Yeah, but…" counter-arguments. No "But I didn't mean to…" as if that's an excuse. No "If only you would…" or "Maybe if you didn't…" or things like this. Not even a "Let me explain why…" That is not the purpose of an apology. An apology is about sorrow, and restitution, and changing your own behavior so that you never have to apologize for that same thing again.

There's a side benefit to taking apologies this seriously, by the way. You can improve your empathy skills if you stop saying "I'm sorry to hear that" or "I'm sorry that happened" when you had nothing to do with what happened. In that kind of situation, you're making it worse for your love because suddenly, on top of everything else, they know that they made someone they care about sorry.

Instead, try saying something like "Wow, that sounds like it really sucks." Or "That must be really hard to deal with. How are you holding up?" It keeps the situation centered where it should be – instead of you being sorry for things you didn't do.

Trust me. There'll be enough of those to get lots of practice apologizing. And when you do it right, it can turn an unfortunate situation into a way to grow closer in love and trust and intimacy.

Not sorry about that one bit.

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