The Worst Apology You’ll Ever Get
I was recently watching a show about a student who was wrongfully accused of committing a crime. In it, one of his teachers—who’d known him for years and had labeled him as a problem student who wasn’t going to amount to anything—was his most vocal accuser. When at last he was exonerated, he went to visit this teacher. You could see the mischievous delight in his face. He saw, and was fully relishing, the humor of the prospect of her apologizing to him. Visibly trying not to smile, he approached her smugly, awaiting his apology in gleeful anticipation. But he did not get what he expected:
“I’m sorry that I suspected that you did it. I was wrong about that. But I don’t believe that I was wrong about you.”
What she said contained the words “I’m sorry” but it was the perfect example of the worst apology you’ll ever get: one that isn’t really an apology at all. It’s so common, there’s a hashtag for it: #sorrynotsorry.
It was heartbreaking to watch the student’s face change from glee to a deep and painful embarrassment and anger. And it offers a perfect—albeit extreme—example of the issues with apologies that many of my relationship coaching clients and potential clients come to me with regularly.
What’s Wrong With “I’m Sorry”?
When someone wants an apology, it’s not the words “I’m sorry” alone that they want. Similarly, when you’re struggling to say the words, “I’m sorry” to your partner, it’s likely not the words themselves that are difficult to say. There’s something else there that’s difficult to express.
Why Is It So Hard To Apologize?
“I’m sorry” can be misinterpreted in many ways. And many of these misinterpretations can be difficult to swallow.
For example, if “I’m sorry” means, “You’re right, I’m wrong” (or “I’m not as good a person as you”) it’s easy to see why it would be hard to say. It might not match our self-image. Or it can feel like an oversimplification of the situation, especially in a relationship. There may be many, many factors that led up to the action that you took—many of which you may want to blame on the other person. So to just say, “You’re right, I’m wrong; you’re better, I’m worse” does not capture the complexity of your feelings or of the situation.
All this is also true if “I’m sorry” means “I’m a bad person” or “I’m flawed.” Although with “I’m a bad person,” it’s also clearer to see how this is flat-out wrong. One person did something and another got hurt. If that’s what it means to be a bad person, well, then we’re all bad people. And saying, “I’m flawed,” is not really any different from saying, “I’m human.”
(As for receiving any of these messages from your partner, you might feel a self-righteous glow that actually feels quite delicious. At first. But then what? What does that gloating or sense of superiority actually give you? Does it bring you closer to your partner? Does it make your relationship warmer? More loving? More satisfying? More intimate? More passionate? Probably not.)
What Could Make Apologizing Easier?
In a relationship, when one partner is upset with another, what the upset partner generally wants most is understanding and empathy. When you’re apologizing, remember that, at the core, your partner wants to know that you care about what they are feeling and what is important to them. In that moment, it’s not about you. This last point can be particular difficult to remember (especially if your partner is saying, “You… You… You…!”) but it’s also particularly important to remember.
How Can I Apologize Effectively?
Let’s take an example. Imagine that your partner is mad at you for getting home late. Again. “But the reason I’m home late is because I was working hard making money so that we can afford your expensive toys!” you want to shout back. But before you do that, take a breath. What are they feeling? They’re yelling and their eyebrows are furrowed, so it looks like anger. But is it anger? Look deeper. Is there confusion? Sadness? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe it’s anger and nothing else. But take a moment to consider what it might be. That consideration—that wondering—is a way to show that you care about what they are feeling.
Next, consider why they’re feeling this way. More specifically, what is important to them in that moment that they didn’t get? They are saying that it’s because you’re late. But take yourself out of the equation. What is it about your being late that has triggered in them such strong feelings? Is your getting home exactly at the time you said you would really what’s most important to them? Why? Is it something about predictability that is so important to them? Or do they interpret your lateness as meaning you don’t care about them? Is it knowing that you love and care for them what’s so important to them in the moment? And being late to them means that you don’t? They seemed to emphasize the word, “Again.” Is something about this happening more than once impacting their sense of trust?
Get to the root of it. What is most important to them in that moment? Make guesses as to what they are not getting that is so important to them. Reliability? Love? Care? Trust? Something else? That exploration is a way to show them that you care about why they feel the way they feel. And with experience and coaching, you can even learn to include your partner in this exploration in a way that expressed to them your empathy and desire to understand them.
And now look at your partner. Quite possibly the love of your life. They are hurting. They are in pain. Remove yourself from the equation—the blame, the shame, the guilt. Just look at them. Can you let their pain touch your heart? If you can, it’s that feeling that is what they want. You can call it sadness, remorse, care. I call it empathy. Simply looking at this person, recognizing that you took an action and the unintended result is that they were unhappy. That is what “I’m sorry” at its deepest level means: “Your pain—and the fact that something I did triggered it—touches my heart.” And for the apology to truly have meaning, round it out with a commitment or mutual plan for things to be different next time.
What If This Doesn’t Work?
The first time you try this, your partner may get suspicious or even more upset. If that happens, try repeating the process. So, imagine you try this and your partner shouts even louder at you, with even more blaming or shaming. “You are such a fake! A phony! You don’t care about anyone but yourself!” Remember: take yourself out of the equation—this is not about you. It’s about them. Then begin again. What are they feeling? What is important to them? Recognize that they are in pain and let their pain touch your heart.
And with experience and coaching, you can even learn to include your partner in this exploration in a way that communicates to them your empathy and desire to understand them.
All of this can seem difficult or even impossible if you are upset about what they are expressing or how they are expressing it. It can be easy to take what they are saying personally, to believe that they are not being fair or reasonable, or to slide into defensiveness. Learning how to reflect upon how you feel and what is important to you is essential to making the apology genuine. It’s also essential for the next step: to empower yourself by expressing how you feel and asking for what you want in a skillful way… ultimately leading to greater intimacy and connection in your relationship.
Or maybe what you’ll want to express is simply that you love them. You might have a hard time imagining this being your reaction. But you might be surprised by how much a genuine apology will open not only your partner’s heart but your own heart as well.
Itzel Hayward is founder of Attuned Living and creator of the Relationship Transformation System, the step-by-step formula for transforming your relationship into the relationship of your dreams. For a free one-hour training detailing the three pillars of the Relationship Transformation System—empowerment, reflection, and connection—visit try.attunedliving.com. Or book a free Relationship Transformation Call with Itzel at book.pocketsuite.io/book/attuned-living today.
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