Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word
Why is it so hard to say we’re sorry?
And why is it so hard to accept someone’s apology?
It seems the more important someone is to us, the harder it can be to give or receive a heartfelt, sincere apology. When the stakes are higher, we often freeze up, and that’s a problem.
Because our romantic relationships are some of the most important ones in our lives, and because we’re flawed humans who will screw things up no matter how meaningful they are to us, being able to give and receive a genuine apology is crucial.
First, let’s look at how we receive and accept someone’s apology.
I think being able to graciously hear someone saying they’re sorry is a key to helping someone feel more comfortable saying it. Think about it…wouldn’t it be easier to admit responsibility for hurting or offending someone if you felt confident they wouldn’t punish or reject you?
Let’s assume the individual is sincerely sorry for whatever it is.
Start by thanking them for the apology. This lets them know it really was important to you, and their taking responsibility for it matters. Try not to say something like “don’t worry about it” or “it was nothing”, unless it really was.
After thanking them, give a brief explanation of why you were so hurt or upset. Brief. One or two sentences, max. And try to give it from the place of the hurt or offense, not from a place of anger or accusation, which will just cause them to become defensive and make them sorry they opened their mouth.
It looks something like this:
“Thanks for apologizing. It hurt my feelings when you forgot we had plans on Saturday, because I think if I was important to you, you would’ve remembered and been available. “
“I appreciate you saying that. I was so offended when you made that comment about the project being no big deal, since I worked very hard on it and was pretty proud of how it turned out.”
Let’s examine the flip side now…how do you offer a heartfelt apology?
First, do some self-reflection and try to determine what your fault or responsibility actually was. Don’t exaggerate or minimize it, get real with yourself about exactly how you offended or hurt them.
Second, don’t apologize for something you don’t believe you did (or didn’t do). Stick to your reality. Doing otherwise will sound false and likely do more harm than good. It’s rarely a good idea to “buy the peace” with an insincere apology.
Third, use “I” language, not “You” language. Here are a couple of examples: “I’m so sorry I forgot about Saturday. You are important to me, and I wanted to spend time with you, but I didn’t put it on my calendar right away and it slipped my mind.
I need to be much better about organization, don’t I?” “You know, you’re right. I shouldn’t have been so flip about your project. It was a big deal to you, and it should’ve been a big deal to be because of that. I’m really sorry.”
What if I’m not sorry, but they’re offended?
We’ve all been there. Someone we care about is mega-upset with us, and we don’t think we did anything wrong, or at least not THAT wrong. Maybe we feel entitled to have acted the way we did.
Maybe we’re sure they had it coming. Maybe we think they’re the one at fault and we’re the victim. Whatever it is, we still want things to be better soon. We want to get back to a good place with the one we love, and we’re pretty sure it’s going to take an apology.
First, it’s a bad idea to apologize for things you didn’t do, or aren’t sorry for.
Apologies only count if they’re sincere. Second, try to find something in the interaction that you can own and say you’re sorry for. Maybe you believe every point you raised in the argument was valid and needed to be said, but you realize your delivery was harsh and combative.
There’s your apology. “Listen, the way I made my point was over the top. I was rougher than I needed to be. I still think my position makes sense, but I regret the way I handled it.” Maybe you feel you’re being mischaracterized, though the facts are accurate.
“You’re right, I did stay out later than I’d said, and I’m sorry. But, it’s not because I don’t care that you’re worried or that you need sleep, I was just having fun and lost track of time. It was careless, not deliberate.”
If you really can’t find a single thing to hang your hat on, ask.
Get curious. Be genuinely interested in their perspective on something. Sometimes the problem isn’t what you did, it’s what they made of it, either because of your history together or their history before you.
In that case, you can try something like this, “Hey, I get it now. What I did reminded you of your dad, and brought up all those feelings. Now that I know that’s a soft spot, I’ll tread more lightly there. I’m really sorry that happened.”
What if you’re convinced the other person is at fault? That the whole thing is really on their shoulders, and you’re the victim, not the perpetrator or a collaborator? What then?
Simple. Don’t apologize. Every insincere “I’m sorry” does damage to your relationship in a different way than the offense(s). Instead, tell your partner, in language of pain not language of accusation or anger, what they did to offend or upset you.
Give them the benefit of the doubt about their intentions, and be open to accepting their apology when it comes. Look for ways to genuinely repair the rift, not to punish them or play the martyr.
Being able to ask for and accept an apology is as important a skill in a relationship as being able to deliver one.