Apologies can be an important way to mend interpersonal relationships, but it is also normal to have complicated feelings about them. Some of us were forced to apologize as children when we hurt someone, and some of us apologized freely and felt immediately better after doing so. Some people feel shamed by apologizing, while others feel ashamed until we have done so.
While a popular movie from decades ago declared that “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” never apologizing in a relationship is a sure way to risk losing it.
Benefits of Apologizing
We may have learned about apologizing when we’ve hurt a friend accidentally or otherwise. There are several important reasons why apologizing is necessary when social rules have been violated. Some of the good things that come from a sincere apology:
- Apologizing establishes relationship rules: When you’ve broken a rule of social conduct from cutting in line to breaking the law, re-establishes that you know what the “rules” are and agree that they should be upheld. This makes others feel safe knowing you agree that hurtful behavior isn’t OK.
- Apologizing re-establish dignity for those you hurt: Letting the injured party know that you know it was your fault, not theirs, helps them feel better, and it helps them save face.
- Apologizing helps repair relationships: By getting people talking again, an apology makes them feel comfortable with each other again. It also helps convey the value that you place on the relationship.
- Apologizing mends trust: A sincere apology allows you to let people know you’re not proud of what you did, and won’t be repeating the behavior. That lets people know you’re the kind of person who is generally careful not to hurt others and focuses on your better virtues, rather than on your worst mistakes.
Relationships can be great sources of stress relief, but conflict can cause considerable stress, which takes a toll. Learning the art of apologizing effectively can significantly reduce the negative effects of conflict and relationship stress. Apologies help us put the conflict behind us and move on more easily.
Many benefits come from forgiveness in terms of happiness and stress relief.
Being adept at apologizing when appropriate can strengthen relationships, reduce conflict, and bring forgiveness. It can be hard, but it’s well worth the effort.
Why Apologizing Is Hard
Apologizing can be difficult for a variety of reasons. How people interpret the need for an apology can play a significant role:
- Apologizing can create feelings of inadequacy: For some people, an apology often feels like an admission that they are inadequate that, rather than having made a mistake, there is something inherently wrong with them.
- Apologizing may imply guilt: Others believe that offering the first apology after an argument is an admission of guilt and responsibility for the entirety of a conflict that involved wrongs on the part of both parties; they think an apology from them will allow the other person to take no responsibility for their own part in the conflict.4 Sometimes an apology seems to call attention to a mistake that may have gone unnoticed.
However, in the right circumstances, a well-delivered, appropriately sincere apology will generally avoid all of these issues, and will merely serve to usher in a resolution, reaffirm shared values, and restore positive feelings. You just have to know when and how to deliver your apology.
When Apologizing Is a Good Idea
If something you’ve done has caused pain for another person, it’s a good idea to apologize, even if whatever you did was unintentional. This is because apologizing opens up the doors to communication, which allows you to reconnect with the person who was hurt.
Reasons you should consider apologizing include when:
- You hurt or insulted someone
- You behaved in a disrespectful way
- You judged someone too harshly or unfairly
- You engaged in behavior you knew was wrong, unfair, or hurtful
- You failed to keep a promise
It also allows you to express regret that they have been hurt, which lets them know you care about their feelings. This can help them feel safer with you again.
Apologizing also allows you to discuss what the “rules” should be in the future, especially if a new one needs to be made, which is often the case when you didn’t hurt the other person intentionally.
Creating new rules for the relationship can help you be protected from getting hurt in the future. If you care about the other person and the relationship, and you can avoid offending behavior in the future, an apology is usually a good idea.
What to Avoid When Apologizing
It is important to note that apologies that involve empty promises are a bad idea. One of the important functions of an apology is that it affords the opportunity to re-establish trust; resolving not to repeat the offending behavior or to make whatever change is possible is an important part of an apology.
If you promise to change but then don’t, the apology merely calls attention to the fact that you’ve done something even you agree is wrong, but refuse to change.
Don’t make promises you can’t keep, but do try to make reasonable promises to avoid hurting the person in the future, and the follow through on those promises. If the other person is expecting something unreasonable or impossible, perhaps you’re taking responsibility for more than you need to.
Tips for Apologizing
An insincere apology can often do more damage than no apology at all. When you are apologizing, it is important to include a few key ingredients so you can apologize sincerely. They should help you to maintain healthy, happy relationships with your friends, family and loved ones.
Take Responsibility for Your Actions
Apologizing doesn’t mean you need to take responsibility for things that were not your fault. You can express regret at unintentionally hurting someone’s feelings, but you don’t have to say you “should have known better” if you truly feel there is no way you could have known your actions would hurt them. In this situation, creating a new rule can help.
Taking responsibility also means specifying what you did that you believe was wrong, but can entail gently mentioning what you believe was not wrong on your part. In this way, you protect yourself from the feeling that if you are the first to apologize, you are taking responsibility for the whole conflict or for the bulk of it.
Don’t make excuses or try to qualify your apology. Instead, just say, “I’m sorry.” Avoid turning the apology into an opportunity to criticize or continue an argument.
Keep It Simple
An apology can include a simple statement such as “I am sorry that you felt that way.” An apology does not necessarily involve stating that you did something wrong. Instead, it may be an acknowledgment that you hurt another person.
Acknowledge Their Feelings
Sometimes when you don’t see eye to eye with another individual, an apology will turn into another argument. (“I am sorry but….”). You can avoid this kind of circular argument by acknowledging someone else’s feelings and that you hurt them.
Apologies are not always easy, but saying your sorry can be important for healthy interpersonal relationships. Even our richest relationships need repair from time to time because we’re human and can slip up and be inconsiderate. But with the right apology, we can ensure they remain healthy, joyous, and long-lasting.