Saying You're SorryYou’ve held a grudge against the words “I’m sorry” ever since preschool — since that mean Mrs. Featherly pried the Lite-Brite® from your hands and returned it to a wailing Baxter Brantley.

Eventually, Ms. Featherly coerced you into apologizing for taking the toy. But you didn’t mean it. The teacher knew you didn’t mean it. Even that stupid Baxter Brantley knew you didn’t mean it. Still, the words eased the tension just enough for class to continue.

Many of our childhood apologies were forced … and therefore not particularly sincere. But these apologies did help keep the peace. As adults, we still must compromise in ways that don’t seem entirely fair. Our interests and ambitions inevitably clash with someone else’s — and sometimes that person is your significant other. And when you've wronged someone you love, an apology is often the only way to set things right again.

A Grown-Up’s Guide to Apologies

Believe in Magic

An apology isn’t omnipotent — it can’t fix everything. But an apology does hold considerable power, often more than we’re willing to admit. We often talk ourselves out of trying: “He/she is so mad … I’ll never hear the end of it.” Or, “I’ve apologized before and it didn’t do any good — why bother?” This defeatist thinking is often more about our personal disdain for apologies than actual doubts about their effectiveness. Dare to believe that saying you’re sorry can make a positive impact in your relationship.

Moral Combat

When you hurt your partner’s feelings, he or she can begin to see you as an adversary, even a villain. You are clearly out to get them. An apology helps re-humanize you in your partner’s mind. By confessing your weakness, your partner is reminded that you are but mortal and are also vulnerable. This allows your significant other to let his/her guard down and feel empathy toward you.

Getting the Formula Right

There’s no perfect potion to ensure your apology is well received. But a few qualities make an apology easier to swallow: Be specific. Be sincere. Take responsibility. Avoid blame.

Mad Science

If our apologies seem ineffectual, it may be that we aren’t delivering them correctly. The science of an effective apology is still emerging. However, Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., notes a few common components of successful apologies:

  • Expressions of empathy
  • Offers of compensation
  • Acknowledgments that certain rules or social norms were violated

These different apology types are especially effective when matched to people who think of themselves in particular ways. The nature of the relationship is also a consideration. After an argument, some men “throw flowers” at the situation. If that tactic fails, they say, “I tried to make it up to her. What more does she want?” This sentiment reveals an independent self-concept — one focused on its own rights, goals and feelings. People with independent self-concepts particularly value compensation in connection with an apology.

By contrast, women frequently have a more relational self-concept — one that highly values connections with others. These women may prefer that any attempts at “restitution” come through expressions of empathy and affirmations of the relationship. Plenty of women love receiving flowers following a fight. But if your current approach isn’t working, make sure you accurately understand your partner’s apology preferences.

Explaining Versus Excusing

People like to use an apology as an opportunity to explain themselves. But explanation can quickly devolve into excusing. Distinguish between words that clarify your motives and words calculated to simply get you off the hook. While providing more context about your decisions can be helpful to your partner, he or she will see through any self-justifying statements.

The Law of Reciprocity

Sometimes we apologize, in part, to cue the other person that he or she should also apologize. There are usually two sides to a conflict, but an apology is not a barter transaction. Following a heartfelt mea culpa, your partner may very well follow with a reciprocal acknowledgement of wrong. But if that admission doesn’t happen right away, don’t insist on it as part of your apology. If need be, have a separate conversation to address any bad decisions on your partner’s side.

Forgiving Yourself

Avoid apologizing over and over for the same thing; you’ll wear yourself out and begin to resent your partner. Ultimately, guilt and shame keep us focused on ourselves (how bad we are) rather than focused on treating our partner well.

The Not-So-Sorry ‘Sorry’

“I’m sorry you don’t like what I did” is not an apology. It is a passive-aggressive way of suggesting that your partner’s reaction is abnormal, irrational or wrong. The strategy rarely works, but we keep trying. It’s a quick way to unburden ourselves emotionally — and maybe, just maybe — appease our partner without having to admit fault. Most people see right through this ploy.

No one enjoys having to admit that he or she was wrong. However, don’t allow your relationship to be damaged by your dislike of saying you’re sorry. Give apologies a second chance — you might be surprised by how much good they can do.