Human beings are such sensitive creatures. It’s impossible to get intimately close without hurting them sometimes. Often, the more someone has had to deal with in life, the more sensitive they are. Because people are so sensitive, there’s more bleeding (metaphorically and literally) in close relationships than in war. As a result, knowing how to make an ideal apology is an essential tool for intimate relationships.
Having a happy and secure relationship doesn’t mean we don’t hurt each other. It means is we have a way to repair the hurts when they happen. Repair isn’t the same as getting over the injury and moving on. Rather, it means healing the pain together and growing closer.
How many times have you received a worthless apology? “No thanks, I’ve had enough of those.” How many times have you apologized, but it made no difference? “I’ve apologized a hundred times, so get over it already!” Finally, how many times have you not apologized because it seems meaningless? “It won’t matter, so it’s best not to try.”
If you’ve found apologizing to lack power and effectiveness, read on. Perhaps you’ve been misled by common myths about apologies. Learning to give a healing apology is an essential foundation for a happy, flourishing relationship. Apologies can become loving and intimate experiences that make us feel fantastic.
But here’s a quick warning before we start. Many people aren’t comfortable enough with emotions to do these steps independently. If you’d like to make an ideal apology but don’t feel ready to go there alone, consider finding a counselor who can be your guide.
Get on the same team.
An ideal apology takes two people who are willing and able to approach the hurt with calmness, teamwork, and connection, without getting into blame, defensiveness, or criticism. Before continuing, make sure you agree this is the attitude you both have.
If not, don’t continue, and try again when you’re both in a better place. If you find you can’t ever get to a place where you can approach the hurt together as a caring team, it’s a sign you need a professional guide.
Own what you did that hurt your partner.
Almost all injuries in close relationships are unintentional. We may know what we are doing may hurt our partner, but do it anyway, hoping they’ll understand or not find out rather than be hurt. More commonly, we don’t even realize what we are doing hurts our partner. Regardless, we need to identify and own whatever we did that hurt.
Rather than assume we know what was hurtful to our partner, it’s important to ask. Ask your partner for their help, “Can you tell me what I did that was hurtful to you?” If you think you know, check it out. “Is this what hurt you, or is there more?
Sometimes, what hurts our partner most isn’t the obvious, such as a betrayal or infraction. Instead, it’s what we did around that to hide or minimize our behavior. It’s good to ask, “Is it this behavior that most hurt you, how I handled it with you, or both?”
See your partner’s hurt as valid.
The next step is to put yourself in your partner’s shoes, to see their hurt as justified and valid. What’s important here is to see it through your partner’s eyes and feel it through their skin. Their sensitivities and concerns are likely very different than yours.
Again, you’ll need your partner’s help. “Can you help me see this moment more clearly through your eyes? When I did ____, what did you think? Describe your hurt for me to understand you better.”
When you can do it from a place in you that’s real and heart-felt, take the next big step in an ideal apology. Tell your partner their hurt is justified and valid. Tell them their pain makes sense to you. You can understand why what you did was hurtful to them.
Join your hurt partner in their pain.
The next and most potent step in an ideal apology requires trust on both sides to feel the pain together with caring and compassion and without judgment or defensiveness. Your partner opens up and shares the scary thoughts, vulnerable emotions, and body sensations that live inside their hurt in this step.
Your move is to feel the pain with your partner from an attitude of openness, caring, and understanding. What you’re looking for here is to experience empathy. Brené Brown’s classic video short provides tips on the difference between sympathizing and empathizing with your partner’s pain.
You may also notice feeling genuine awe and appreciation that your partner is willing to trust you with the inner, sensitive part of their emotions. The most healing response you can have here is to let your partner know they aren’t alone and you’re here. Reassure them you’re here to care about all the pain they want to share.
Respond by sharing any genuine feelings you have. “My heart hurts with you.” “I feel sick to my stomach as I hear about your pain.” Also, share any genuine appreciation for trusting you. “I’m glad you’re not alone with this right now, that I can be here with you.”
Joining and witnessing your partner’s pain is a healing step. It can lift the hurt from your partner’s body and relieve any feelings of guilt from yours.
Give your partner what they need right now.
After they’ve shared pain, and before moving on to the final step, ask your partner what they need from you, right here, right now, to feel you’re there, that you care. They may say you’d already given them everything they need to feel. Or they may ask for a hug or some reassurance. In this step, give your partner what they need to the best of your genuine ability.
Don’t give anything that isn’t genuine. For example, if your partner replies they need you to promise never to do the hurtful behavior again, don’t give that promise if you’re not 100% sure you can keep it. Give a reply that is honest instead. For example, “I understand how much this hurts you, and that matters to me. I’ll do my best to work on this, but I’m going to need your help, patience, and support to get there.”
Make a plan to reverse roles, now or at a later time.
In the final step of an ideal apology, you and your partner agree to reverse roles. Now or later, go back through the moment you did something to hurt your partner. But this time, your partner’s role is to understand what was happening for you. Your job is to share what was happening for you in a more vulnerable way.
Does an ideal apology sound hard? It is hard at first and can take guidance and practice to master. However, being in a relationship without deep and genuine apologies is harder.
Everyone deserves to have this kind of relationship. If it seems too hard to get there on your own, don’t hesitate to reach out for support. Working together, accomplishing an ideal apology is a skill that we can develop and build over time.
Consider, how much would it be worth to work through a genuine apology with your partner? Would you like to share your answer with your partner?