Written by Crystal Bradshaw, LPC, NCC, Gottman 7 Principles Trainer
Apologies are healing. They are a way of choosing a relationship over being right. They are a function of self-respect and self-worth. When you apologize you are saying: "You matter to me and our relationship matters to me." But when apologies are absent, or not heartfelt, it can communicate a message you don't intend to send and compromise the relationship.
So, if apologizes are so good for relationships why is it so hard for people to apologize?
Sometimes people struggle with apologizing because they have so much shame. Sometimes people don't apologize because the hurt partner has made it very difficult to apologize. When people strike back after being hurt, they make it more unlikely that they will get an apology.
Apologies are uncomfortable because they are connected to accountability, defensiveness, and responsibility.
For someone to be responsible and accountable for their words and actions, it puts people in a position of seeing themselves unfavorably. People want to view themselves in a positive way, and apologies highlight that you've done something incongruent with your self-image of being a "good person." Apologies force people to see how they have hurt someone, and that can be difficult for many to acknowledge.
People can be reluctant to apologize out of fear - fear of how the apology will be received, which is something beyond our control. It's a very vulnerable experience. There is a fear that our apology won't be accepted, that it might lead to more fear and criticism (which is very common), that it will be used against us, that we will be perceived as weak, and that we are losing something by apologizing.
According to clinical psychologist Dr. Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., when we apologize, we are giving 3 gifts
3 Gifts of an Apology
1. We are giving a gift to the person we have hurt.
An apology can release the person we have hurt from obsessing over what we have done. When someone receives an apology, it can sooth and calm any anger or resentment they may be carrying. It frees them of ruminating thoughts like: "How could they do that?" or "How could they say that and not see how....?"
Receiving an apology can help someone let go of blame, anger, and resentment, all which are toxic to a relationship. In this way an apology is a gift; it helps the person who has been hurt feel safe in the relationship again, and validates their sense of reality as well as their experience.
As a gift, an apology:
2. We are giving a gift to ourselves.
When we master the art of apology, our resilience grows as does our integrity, maturity, and overall happiness. When we apologize to someone for something we have done, it forces us to hear how badly we hurt someone.
When we meet someone who we have hurt with our own vulnerability and sorrow, we will come out feeling more brave and having more self-respect for having the courage to do it. No matter how our apology is received, if we stand firm behind our apology we are gifting ourselves compassion.
3. We are giving a gift to our relationship.
Relationships need to be able to heal after hurt and disconnection. When we mess up, we have to be able to own that so the relationship isn't weaker for it. A strong relationship and good intimacy is built upon people's ability to repair after hurt.
A bad apology can be damaging to a relationship. If someone doesn't apologize for something, but they change their behavior in order to not repeat the hurt, then the relationship has a good chance of bouncing back from that hurt.
However, if someone apologizes but continues with the hurtful behavior, then things are not good. The apology isn't meaningful because it isn't backed with changed behavior; it isn't followed by intentional effort to do differently and to avoid repeating the hurt.
An apology without changed behavior is a bad apology.
The message being sent is: you, your feelings, your experience, our relationship, doesn't matter. The negative consequence to a bad apology is that the relationship will suffer and the individuals will grow distant.
Don't say "I'm sorry" and then not back it up with changed behavior.
A good apology has 3 things -
In a good apology there is accountability with less rationalization, minimizing, and denial. Before you apologize, stop and ask yourself:
What is this going to feel like to the person I'm speaking to?
What's the impact going to be on them?
A good apology also has empathy for the person you are speaking to. Empathy is a way to validate someone's experience by expressing an understanding of what it must be like for them. Empathy has the power to calm someone down because your are conveying to them their feelings make sense to you.
A good apology will also contain an element of vulnerability. There is vulnerability in an apology because you are opening yourself up to the possibility of being confronted, being emotionally attacked or blamed, or being criticized for what you have done. Yet, you apologize despite this.
How to receive an apology
Hurting and overcoming hurt is part of any relationship. Often, when people receive an apology they respond with: "It's ok." or "Don't worry about it." This response minimizes the hurt and seeks to comfort the one who did the hurting.
Instead of rescuing the one doing the apologizing, acknowledge the apology by saying something like:
By responding to an apology in this way, you are communicating that yes, the apology was needed and that you accept it.
It's important to understand that giving an apology can be scary. Apologies have inherent vulnerability in them, which is why people avoid and struggle with giving and receiving them. We can feel small, fragile, exposed, and even fear losing respect in the presence of an apology. They force us to acknowledge an unsavory aspect of ourselves that might make us feel shameful and guilty.
It makes sense that people want to avoid apologies. We fear how our apology might be received, but that should not prevent us from apologizing for hurting someone else.
Hurting and overcoming hurt is part of being in a relationship.
We need to give ourselves, and those in our lives, permission to be human, to make mistakes, and to make repairs.
Though apologies can be scary, we stand to gain more respect and a stronger relationship when we open ourselves up to giving, and receiving, meaningful apologies from the heart.
You may also enjoy What is Your Apology Language and 56 Secrets to a Happy Marriage
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