How to construct the perfect apology, restore trust, and strengthen your relationship
In business and in life, image has become exceedingly important. The advent of advertising resulted in the fading away of the age of character and the rise of the age of personality, in which the quest for integrity was replaced by the quest for reputation. In other words, the world today teaches us that in order to get ahead it is more important to project a good image than to cultivate genuine good character.
It isn’t as bad as it sounds; learning to project a good image does go a long way towards helping us build relationships and collaborate with others. However, the art of the apology is one of the casualties of our times. If we make a mistake, we often become focused on trying to minimize or detract attention from the error, because it could hurt our image. A good apology, however, can be harnessed as an invaluable tool for strengthening image and relationships. In our romantic relationships especially, it is of utmost importance to be ready, able, and even eager to apologize and be accountable for mistakes instead of trying to brush them under the rug.
To illustrate our point, consider the oft-repeated business advice that one should avoid apologizing and focus on the solution instead. Imagine that you have miscommunicated something to one of your company’s clients, and it has caused an awkward scheduling blunder resulting in your client showing up for a meeting that didn’t happen because you weren’t even in the office that day. The anti-apology advice would go as follows: “Don’t apologize, just briefly explain the situation, the solution, and thank them for understanding.”
The logic behind this advice is that apologizing, particularly in a business context, can highlight and add emphasis to a mistake when the other person may not have necessarily noticed one otherwise, creating a feeling of indebtedness to them. This does not inspire confidence.
While this advice may sometimes be sound from a marketing standpoint, it does personal relationships a great disservice. After years of rigorous study of thousands of couples in his “relationship laboratory”, John Gottman (one of the world’s most respected relationship psychologists) has learned to break down, with startling accuracy, the building blocks of a strong relationship. And guess what? Apologizing is a part of it.
Why Apologizing is so Powerful for Supercharging Your Relationships
One of Gottman’s most important findings is about repair, or your ability to fix damage to a relationship. Repairing during or after a conflict can come in many forms : an affectionate smile, a hug, a joke, or…an apology. Apologizing is everyone’s least favorite form of repair, because it involves admitting having been wrong. However, it’s also one of the most powerful.
Ponder this for a moment: A bone which breaks and then heals is strongest at the point of the break. A metal pipe which breaks and is then welded back together is stronger at the point of welding than anywhere else (Goldsteyn, 2015). And according to Gottman, relationships are no different — a relationship that has just been repaired effectively after a conflict or misdeed of some sort is actually stronger than a relationship in which no recent conflict took place (Gottman, 2015).
Although apologizing is not the only way to repair, it is sometimes the method that is called for. A situation that calls for apology actually presents a unique opportunity to make your relationship much stronger than before. Many of us know that, yet our egos still manage to get in the way and sabotage our apologies from time to time. Here’s what not to do:
3 Common Apology Mistakes to Avoid
1.) Saying ‘but’ as a way to justify yourself, mid-apology.
This undermines the ‘I’m sorry’ part. What you’re really saying is, ‘I feel kinda bad about it, yet also, I’m mainly saying this as a way to justify my behavior.’
-I’m sorry I spilled tea on your computer, but it wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t left your computer on the dinner table.
-I’m sorry that I woke you up, but you’re such a light sleeper.
Also, don’t substitute fancier words like ‘though’ or ‘although’ or ‘however’ for but. Despite your cleverness, your partner can see right through that. Believe us.
2.) Apologizing for the way the other person feels
This is a thinly-veiled way of signaling your refusal to take responsibility for any wrongdoing.
-I’m sorry you’re upset; I hope you’ll feel better soon.
-Oh, you’re mad at me? Well, I’m sorry you feel that way.
By being sorry they feel that way, you’re placing the burden of responsibility solely on them in a not-so-subtle way. Try this one in combination with ‘but’ if you really want to hammer home how much you don’t think you did anything wrong.
3.) Subtly skipping over the apology
The best way to mess up an apology is to just skip it entirely when it is warranted. You’re especially likely to fall prey to this one if your conflict management style is avoidant and you believe an apology might magnify rather than skip over a conflict. It’s especially easy to skip the apology when the offense was relatively minor…but when you make a habit of it, it has a negative effect on your relationships. Consider the following:
Your fiance is an insomniac, and he’s constantly trying to catch up on sleep. One morning you jar him awake by carelessly making a lot of noise in the bedroom long before he has to get up. He opens his eyes, glares at you, and says that this level of noise is way too much for him to sleep. “Ok, ok, go back to sleep”, you say in a hushed tone, knowing he probably won’t be able to. But silently, your husband is stewing a little bit under the covers, because you moved directly from problem to solution without bothering to admit wrongdoing and show care by apologizing.
The above example alone will not make or break a relationship, but once habituated, these small failures to admit fault where appropriate will erode trust and create distance. However, also remember in order to make it exponentially easier for the other party to admit fault, you raise the issue in a calm way without the slightest hint of condescension.
The Perfect Apology
Here is a template for the perfect apology, given to us by a friend who is an expert in interpersonal communication skills.
-I’m sorry that I…
-It probably made you feel…, because…
-In the future, you will notice that I will…
-And right now, to correct the situation, I’m going to…
Applied to a real-life situation, it might sound like this:
I’m sorry that I looked in your browser history when you went to the bathroom. It probably made you feel betrayed and like I don’t trust you, because I did it behind your back instead of bringing up my suspicions and feelings of insecurity directly. In the future, you will notice I will be more forthcoming with my preoccupations, and leave your devices alone. And right now, to correct the situation I’m going to sincerely apologize and ask you what needs to happen in order for you to trust me again.
Of course, this template works best for moderate to large-sized transgressions. If it’s something small that hasn’t happened repeatedly enough to warrant a lot of tension buildup, a simple, heartfelt “I’m sorry” will do just fine.
Repair and Prenups
If you see the power of thoughtful and skillful repair and apologizing during and/or after a conflict, might we suggest integrating a section about repair into a lifestyle clause in your prenup? Lifestyle clauses allow you to sketch out how you want various aspects of your relationship to look, from roles and expectations to conflict management and anything else you might want to include. It’s kind of like an ultra-powerful vision boarding technique supercharged by being part of a contract. Though lifestyle clauses are not always legally enforceable, they create a framework for accountability within your relationship. If there is accountability within the relationship, the legally enforceable parts are less likely to ever be relevant. There is something powerful about signing a paper in illustration of your commitment to its contents. When you sign a prenup, you are also reinforcing your commitment to the relationship as a whole.
Repair and apology might even be a part of the prenup process itself. Since not everyone has the same views on prenups, or on what should be included in their own, it can be a thorny topic to raise; what if you’re not successful in bringing up a prenup without upsetting your partner? What if the discussion becomes tense and one of you says something insensitive, derailing the process? Maintaining awareness of how and when to apologize is a great way of getting the process back on track and not allowing a disagreement or a harshly-spoken word to spiral out of control.
So remember the relationship-building power of repair, don’t say ‘but’ or apologize for the other person’s feelings, and for heaven’s sake, don’t skip the apology even if you think it’s really not a big deal. Validate your partner’s experience with a sincere admission of wrongdoing, acknowledgment of their feelings, and future intention. Then, step back and watch your connection and trust grow.
Goldshtyen, D. (2015). Science of relationships part I. Brooklyn, New York: RAJE Center.
Gottman, J. (2015). The seven principles for making marriage work: A practical guide from the country’s foremost relationship expert. New York: Harmony.