Couples often are struggling with how to apologize in relationships. Because of our very nature has human beings, we are all imperfect. We can be forgetful, insensitive, distracted, tired or cranky.
It is impossible (yes, impossible!) to not occasionally hurt our partner’s feelings. Something we said, didn’t say, did or didn’t do. . . missteps that, even without intent, can be hurtful and cause emotional distress.
However, when it comes to apologizing, we hear quite often that couples are challenged by how to apologize in relationships, how to be genuine and how to effectively address their partner’s needs.
In this post, we’re exploring why apologies often fail to hit the mark and then, of course, how to apologize in relationships with meaning and empathy. We’ll discuss how apologies can strengthen your bond and reconnection by maintaining and enhancing trust. And, we’ll help you deepen your understanding and appreciation of each other’s emotional needs to feel securely loved.
When Apologies Fail
Apologies rarely are helpful — and can even at times be more hurtful — when:
- An apology is given only to appease the other partner’s anger and disappointment
- The apology is an attempt to move on and put the issue behind you without acknowledging the pain the hurt partner is feeling
- Automatic and almost rote when a more serious issue needs to be addressed
To be successful, an apology must recognize and not minimize the hurt feelings the partner is experiencing.
A major stumbling block in how to apologize in relationships can occur when the offending partner does not see the hurt partner’s painful feelings as justified or valid.
A natural (but not helpful!) reaction by the offending partner to the situation can include:
- “I don’t understand why it’s such a big deal!”
- “You’re too emotional about this.”
- “You know I didn’t mean it.”
Getting to the Heart of the Matter
Apologies matter most between spouses and partners — and to a far greater degree than with others in our lives. The emotional and physical bond we share with our beloved is a powerful force. So, when something hurtful or forgotten occurs, the hurt feelings are far more significant than with anyone else.
It’s not unusual for the offending partner to feel at a loss about how to apologize and this, in turn, can lead to unintentionally minimizing or dismissing the partner’s feelings.
With our partner, we have a basic need to be heard and understood. We desire to be appreciated for our uniqueness and for our span of normal human emotions. We have a strong need to preserve that bond and know that we are secure in our partner’s hearts.
Therefore, we need to know that our feelings matter. We need our partner to validate our needs for connection, trust and acceptance.
We very much need to know that our partner is on our side. So, when something hurtful occurs, we need to know that our partner will seek to repair the situation. An apology takes on a much greater meaning because of that strong bond.
How to Apologize in Relationships: The Key Elements
In Emotionally Focused Therapy, the most-successful and most-researched approach to helping couples in distress, there are clear guidelines for healing hurtful events. These steps have been proven, through studies and research, to be effective in how to apologize to a partner.
1. The hurt partner is able to discuss the impact of the event and his or her deeper feelings. This can be challenging because it can be difficult to be calm and to avoid anger. There can be a fear that the other person won’t understand or that the hurtful event will never be healed.
2. The offending partner works hard to decrease defensiveness and to avoid interrupting — which is often a sign of being defensive. As both partners are able to calmly discuss the event, the offending partner can begin to understand the significance of the event in his or her partner’s mind (even if the action did not feel so big or important to the offending partner).
3. When the hurt partner can speak of the pain and the other partner hears the feelings, the door is open for the injured partner to speak more deeply of the hurt. The importance of the bond is often part of the hurt partner’s explanation.
4. The injuring partner becomes more aware and is having a “felt sense” of the partner’s pain. He or she is emotionally connecting with the partner’s concerns and level of feelings about the event. At this point, the injuring partner is able to take responsibility for what happened and express regret and remorse with true empathy
5. The injured partner is able to accept comfort and reassurance, feeling that the partner “gets it” that the event was hurtful for him or her.
At this point, both partners are more able to respond to each other: One partner accepts that the event was hurtful to the other, and the hurt partner can begin to trust that he or she will be heard and understood.
Jane & John Practice How to Apologize in Relationships
Jane is feeling very hurt that John was not very focused on their 15th anniversary. Granted, Jane was the one who usually planned the dinner or weekend away. She was typically more tuned in to special occasions.
But this year, John was more distracted than usual because of changes at his job. His company was forecasting another “reorganization,” which was usually upsetting to all the staff because there were many unknown possibilities that could impact his work and his sense of job security.
Feeling that the number “15” was an important milestone, Jane planned an overnight at a local resort and some spa time for both of them. But John was on his phone to colleagues and he even bought his laptop. Jane felt a slow burn as the weekend progressed, feeling unimportant and sad that John could not focus on her and on being close.
Jane held back speaking up because she did not want to cause an argument — and she kept hoping John would respond to her hints that he set work aside for just those two special days together.
Not surprisingly, on the drive home, Jane could no longer contain her feelings. She was angry, and she became very emotional about how hurt she felt. John defended his position. He hoped she would understand how worried he was about work. Both felt distant and they tabled the discussion when they got home so they could spend time with their children.
As the days moved forward, each hoped for the other to gain some understanding and apologize. However, the subject of the weekend became a “hot potato” of shorts, each doing a pretty good job of avoiding any discussion of their disappointment.
Lingering Feelings Are Still as Painful
Jane grew frustrated that her feelings weren’t being acknowledged. She told John they really needed to talk.
They were able to use the above guidelines, which they had practiced before in couples therapy. While they had a roadmap for the discussion, they both felt a degree of apprehension. So, John took the initiative: “I know it’s hard for us sometimes to discuss problems. However, I realize we need to set this behind us.”
John’s acknowledgment of Jane’s need to talk helped her relax, knowing she would be heard and that John was willing to understand her deeper feelings. They knew how to apologize in relationships — and they needed to have that conversation.
The discussion took some time — and considerable patience. However, they slowed down their reactions to each other and worked at focusing on what each other was saying. They were able to agree that had Jane spoken up earlier, it might have helped John realize how distracted he was. John was able to recognize how he was distant and how important the weekend was to Jane.
Each was able to apologize with sincerity. The couple was able to turn a hurtful time into a bonding event — when they shared deeper feelings and their need for understanding and support.
Bigger Events May Be More Challenging to Heal
The most challenging dilemma for most couples is navigating affair recovery. You can learn more here [link to blog]. To learn more about Emotionally Focused Therapy, read [link to cornerstone page.]
To understand more about communication in relationships, read our article on relationship communication here.
If you are reeling from an emotional affair and need help moving on, read our article on the subject here.