You be the judge: Am I spending too much time doing yard work lately? In preparing to write this article, I was thinking about apologies and I’m pretty sure I came up with the perfect analogy. What are apologies like? Apologies are a lot like weeds: once in a while, they’re pretty, but they’re usually just annoying. Similarly, if you think about the countless apologies you’ve probably heard in the past year alone, you can probably only remember one or two specifically – and those were either really good ones or really bad ones.
Bottom line on apologies: Most of them aren’t thoughtful or sincere. For most of us, making a mistake usually results in the fear that we will get in trouble or be punished, so we throw out a quick “I’m sorry” to stop a potential argument and avoid getting in trouble. Often someone issues an obligatory apology and makes a sad face to go along with it, convinced that all the necessary components of an apology have been met. Did I say, “I’m sorry?” Check. Did I look sad? Check. Which brings us to how to offer an apology the right way.
I don’t actually have to say the words, “I’m sorry?”
It’s a total paradox but a good apology doesn’t have to include the words “I’m sorry” or “I apologize.” The truth is that a good apology includes three components: acknowledging the other person’s feelings; taking ownership of what you did that caused upset; and assuring him or her that you won’t make the same mistake again. For specifics, I’ll give you some examples of good and bad – no, atrocious – apologies.
Examples of Good Apologies
“I know you’ve asked me not to flirt with other people. At the time, I honestly didn’t think I was. Now I realize you were right, and that wasn’t right of me to do that. I won’t do it again.” Note: Did you see the words, “I’m sorry?” Okay, then my job is almost done here!
“I have spent the day trying to understand why you were upset. I finally get it. I wasn’t thinking about your feelings, only my own. If I ever do that again, please tell me, ‘You’re doing it again, honey.’ I will deal with this because I care about you.” Note: This one is especially good because the apologizer actually took time to reflect on the behavior (e.g., “I have spent the day trying to understand why…). In each of the good apologies, it feels as if the apologizer is conceding, and is no longer in a power struggle to win or be right.
“I heard you; you keep saying it. I’m sorry, okay? I said I won’t do it again.” Note: I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be on the receiving end of this apology.
“Apologize to you? What about me? You think you’re the only one who did anything wrong here?” Note: Enough said. “I know I shouldn’t have done what I did, but you kind of set me up for it. You bring it out of me, and it’s hard to control myself when you push me too far.” Note: Turning the tables is one of the most common tactics for narcissists. They avoid accountability at all costs and frequently try to turn the tables, causing the other person to feel confused and to ultimately back down.
This kind of apology is especially toxic. If you get this type of apology from your partner, you need to seriously evaluate the relationship. Among the bad apologies, you’ll see how they keep the disconnect and arguments alive. Bad apologies are yet another attempt to try to show the other person you were right all along.
When is it Time to Apologize?
Because everyone has a different personality style, everyone deserves a little wiggle room when it comes to the timing of an apology. The ideal apology, of course, involves someone apologizing right away. Yet some people need a little time to retreat to their own corner before they can return to the group and play nicely. I crawl out of my skin a bit each time someone flippantly announces their approach to relationship problems in the following way: “We have a rule where we never go to bed angry.” Child, please! If only life were that easy. If someone needs an evening or even a couple of days to reflect before coming back with an apology, it’s okay. If you’re waiting for an apology, distract yourself with an activity that absorbs your mental energy and be patient. The apology may come sooner than you imagine, but you can also always ask for an apology in a couple of days if you haven’t yet received it. By that point in time, the two of you will probably have cooled down anyhow and can have a much more effective conversation as a result.
Have you received any good apologies lately? Or just the toxic kind?
Dr. Seth Meyers has had extensive training in conducting couples therapy and is the author of Dr. Seth’s Love Prescription: Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve.