“Sorry,” – Part 1

Monday, July 14th, 2008 at 1:30 am


This issue of CounselorLetter will focus on apology.

Apparently Elton John was so accurate when he said, in one of his songs, “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.”

The complaint that apologies are offered too infrequently and insincerely is near the top of the list couples mention in my office.  The desire for, and the power of apology is matched by little else.  And yet, apology seems to be a rare staple in many couples’ marital pantry.  Why that is will be discussed in a future issue of CounselorLettter.

Apology is a phenomena that is equally powerful when given, or when withheld.  When we think we deserve one and receive it, its quasi-magical effect can alter a relationship.  When omitted, the precipitating emotional injury may seem interminable or unforgivable.  Indeed, to quench your partner’s thirst for an apology is to feed the intimacy of a relationship.

What makes apology so powerful?  First, it is a sign of emotional responsibility:  Basically, it’s saying “It was my fault.,”  or, “I take responsibility/ownership for my actions.”

Second, apology typically originates from an empathic position, one with some degree of self-reflection.  It shows you can imagine the pain your partner feels, realize your role in precipitating it, and apologize for that role.  The apology says “I care about you;”  “you matter to me,”  “this relationship matters to me.”

Third, an apology reinforces emotional relationship safety.  Apology equals repair–a fundamental ingredient in a moment (or later, if appropriate) of injury no matter how slight.  When repair is made on a regular basis, it helps maintain a solid foundation of trust, a necessary element for the continued growth of a relationship.  Apology creates emotional safety.


When is an apology offered?

First, when emotional injury occurs unintentionally.  The idea that you did not intend to say or do something hurtful, bad, wrong, unkind, insensitive etc., does not relieve you of responsibility.  Couples frequently tell me that sometimes more damage is done due to the absence of  apology than by the act that warranted an apology in the first place.

Second, when we intentionally do something to get under our partner’s skin.  Few of us can say we’ve never done that.  Whether intentional or unintentional motives are associated with our less than stellar behavior, an apology can bring quick repair to a  relationship in an single moment, when given genuinely.


A genuine apology NEVER has the word “but” in it.  “Honey I’m really sorry I called that terrible, crass, nasty, gross name, BUT, if you hadn’t given me ‘the look’ while we were arguing, I wouldn’t have said it.”  Ladies and gentlemen, that is NOT an apology.  That says ‘I treated you like dirt, you deserved it, it’s your fault, so don’t blame me—you asked for it.’ Uh Huh.

Here’s a tip:  Take the word ‘but’ out of the mix, and leave it out, or, replace it with the word ‘and.’   Now the apology looks like this: “Honey I’m really sorry I called you that terrible, crass, nasty, gross name,  AND you didn’t deserve that, AND I’d like to know how I can make it make it up to you.  Please forgive me.”

Which of those would you rather hear?  Remember:  apology usually has three elements:  I’m sorry.  It was my fault.  How do I make it right?

Look for “Sorry, Part 2,” coming soon.

Wishing you a satisfying relationship,

Jim Hutt, Ph.D., MFT

©Jim Hutt, Ph.D., MFT 2008

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