Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word

What is it about apologies? What is it about the thought of saying “I’m sorry” that puts in motion that hardening, closing, resisting feeling in the pit of our stomachs, that corrals our minds and constricts our throats (or maybe that’s just me)?

Early on in the relationship with my husband my apologies used to sound something like this: “Am I sorry? Oh, I’m sorry. Sooo unbelievably sorry that you are too immature and too oblivious to even try and wrap your tiny little brain around what I was saying to you. I apologize.” Charming, no? Defensive apologies take the semblance of an apology, wrap it in an attack, and deliver it like a brick through a window. They are about as helpful at repairing a relational hurt as having a double espresso is helpful at calming your nerves. That’s not to say they don’t serve a purpose, it’s just a very different purpose than the one apologies are intended to serve. Defensive apologies soothe our own egos, let us stay in the protected (but disconnected) place of “I’m right and you’re wrong” and create distance in a relationship when closeness may feel too vulnerable to bear.

Shame based apologies on the other hand, look more like a genuine apology on the surface: “I did it again didn’t I? God I’m so sorry, I don’t know why you put up with me. I am such a piece of shit, I hate myself.” A shame based apology changes the conversation. Your partner is no longer talking about whatever it was they were upset about, they’re refuting (or agreeing with) your basis for self-loathing and end up either putting their own concerns aside in order to comfort you, or feeling like a monster for kicking you when you’re already kicking yourself.

So what does a genuine apology sound like? It starts with “I’m sorry.” Not “I’m sorry but” followed by excuses, rationalizations or explanations, not “I’m sorry you feel that way” or “I’m sorry if I did anything to hurt you.” In short, a genuine apology starts with genuinely feeling apologetic, honestly assessing your side of the interaction and taking ownership of your part in it. The second part of a genuine apology is talking about the experience in a way that shows your partner you can empathize with their point of view. For example, “I’m sorry. What I said was mean and hurtful and probably made you feel like you don’t really matter to me.” Your ego will not enjoy your genuine apology (alright, I’m talking about myself again), but your relationship definitely will.

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