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Relationship Rescue: The Art of Apologizing

Earn the right to be forgiven with an authentic apology. Here's how

By Terri Orbuch, Ph.D.

We all make mistakes, especially in our relationships. We hurt the people we love by procrastinating, breaking promises, lying or making unkind comments or jokes at their expense. Usually these slips aren’t serious enough to jeopardize the stability of the relationship (e.g., infidelity, drug addiction). But even in healthy, happy relationships, hurt and unhappiness happen because we all have personal flaws that we’re still working on correcting — and our partners often suffer the consequences.
When we behave badly, we need to apologize — quickly, in a heartfelt fashion, and completely. But no one ever teaches us exactly how to do that. We may think it’s easy to ask forgiveness for our mistakes, but if we do it reflexively without offering suggestions on how we’ll change, our partner won’t hear or forgive us. The art of apologizing takes thought and practice.
My client Barry, 63, learned this the hard way. The ruggedly handsome executive chef at an upscale restaurant in Detroit admitted: “I usually act before I think, and that gets me into trouble. I need to step on the brakes and figure out how to think more rationally.”
Barry has been divorced twice and is living with Samantha, his partner of four years. She’s a 55-year-old shoe store manager who, after an unhappy marriage to an unstable guy, told Barry she wants someone who is reliable and trustworthy and who can communicate with her. And until recently, the relationship was going pretty well.
In our counseling sessions, however, Barry has been working on his impulse control, acting more responsibly and being more empathetic. “The restaurant culture is like the Wild West,” he told me. “It’s normal to curse and blow up at people in the middle of a big rush and then make up with them after work over a few shots of tequila. Just look at the celebrity chefs on TV: So many of them are real bad boys.”

(MORE: 5 Ways to Push Past Your Regrets)
Men Behaving Badly
One thing Barry has going for him is his ability to see himself with some objectivity. But that doesn’t mean he always does the right thing. Last month he requested an “emergency session,” in which he revealed that Samantha was very upset with him and that he needed to figure out how to apologize and change ASAP.
Two nights before, he’d been out after work with his buddies, many of them partiers in their 30s. “Like a jerk, I was trying to keep up with those young bucks,” he said. “And the truth is, I can’t hold my alcohol anymore. I’m a two-drink lightweight.”
On the night in question, Barry had way too much to drink and ended up sleeping on a friend’s couch. He never called Samantha to tell her where he was, and to make matters worse, he got up the next morning (actually, afternoon), went to work and didn’t call home the entire day. “I felt so bad, physically and mentally,” he said, “that I didn’t know what to say to her.”
When he got home that night, Samantha was understandably fuming. After she read him the riot act, she explained that she was frustrated with his childish behavior and that she’d been up most of the night, worried sick. She had even called local hospitals to see if he was there. They went to bed that night not speaking to each other.
Barry asked me how he could apologize to Samantha and make amends. The strategies I shared with him are useful for anyone who has hurt a loved one and wants to repair the damage.
How to Say You're Sorry and Mean It

  • Be timely. The sooner you offer an apology, the quicker the healing can begin. If you can, do it the same day. You could always initiate an apology via text, email, or phone and then follow up in person later or the next day. But don’t have the discussion as your partner gets home from work, is deeply engaged in something or in front of others (especially the kids). Barry’s mistake, he realized, was that he waited way too long to say he was sorry, and by the time he did, Samantha was furious and less willing to discuss or forgive him. 
  • Say it, and look like you mean it. A sincere apology requires the right words and body language (relaxed posture, eye contact, touch, remorseful facial expression). Studies show that if you say you’re sorry but your looks and gestures don’t match, the other person will be less apt to believe you. For Barry, who has a tendency to pace when he’s upset, aligning language with actions meant taking a few deep, grounding breaths, sitting down next to Samantha and calmly expressing his regret and contrition.
  • Be specific. If you are truly regretful, be clear about what you are sorry for so your partner understands that you know what you did. Simply saying “I’m sorry” doesn’t convey enough information. Barry needed to state: “I’m sorry for not calling you last night. If you had done that to me I would have been so worried.” Barry told me he was in no condition to talk that night but that it had occurred to him to have his friend give Samantha a call. I pointed out to him that he still didn’t call her the next day. “I felt so guilty by then,” he said. “Mistakes on top of mistakes!”
  • Admit responsibility. No matter what you do, never follow “I’m sorry” with “but … ” That indicates an excuse, not a genuine apology. Barry shouldn’t say: “I’m sorry for not calling you, but if you were so worried, why didn’t you call my friends? You knew I was going out with them last night.” It’s a way of shifting the blame. Barry needs to confess, “I’m sorry for not thinking of you and for avoiding this talk.”
  • Offer an explanation. The other person may not want to hear all the details, but some explanation is in order. Plus it gives your partner the chance to get “closure” and move on. When Barry got home the night after his disappearance, he owed Samantha an honest reason for not calling. Even if she didn’t like it, she deserved to know why he had been out all night.
  • Give an action plan for the future. After you sincerely apologize, you need to tell your mate how you will change (or are changing) and what you will do in the future. Barry listened to what Samantha said, how his actions made her feel, then told her how he intended to act differently in the future. “For one thing,” he told me, “I really need to stick to one drink after hours, and I can totally do that. And I also told Samantha that not calling will never happen again.” 

(MORE: 'I'm Done Apologizing': Life After Sorry)

The Aftermath of an All-Nighter
There’s no guarantee that someone will forgive you when you say you’re sorry. But making amends isn’t about getting something (forgiveness) for yourself. It’s about giving something to another person — respect, consideration and honesty.
Barry is working to be more conscious of how his behavior affects people. And that has led him to ask Samantha about her goals and dreams as well as the challenges in her life. He is learning to communicate more in all of his relationships, and he’s been very mindful of his alcohol consumption.
“The restaurant is stressful,” he said. “But I see that blowing off steam after work with drinks actually doesn’t help with that. My new morning running routine is working so much better.”
Barry recently joined a golf league with guys his own age. He still hangs out with his 30-year-old friends, but when they’re going out for “all night” partying, he said he sticks to his plan of having one beer then calls Samantha to meet for a “late date” at the local diner. And should he do something wrong in the future, he will say he's sorry immediately and with conviction. It was a painful lesson, but Barry is mastering the art of apologizing.

The names of the clients in this article have been changed to protect their privacy.

Terri Orbuch, Ph.D. (aka “the love doctor”), is a relationship therapist, professor and an author of five books, including Finding Love Again: 6 Simple Steps to a New and Happy Relationship. She is also the project director of the largest and longest-running NIH-funded study of married and divorced couples ever conducted. Read More
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