An apology is something that we all like to receive but most of us find difficult to give. And, giving an apology well will help restore a relationship, while other ways can sound empty and insincere. Maybe that’s why it seems like a good, effective apology is so rare.
While much has been written about apologies in general, an apology related to a domestic violence incident merits a more thorough discussion. I’m no relationship expert, but I have messed up plenty of times in my life, including committing acts of domestic violence. As a result of all my “practice” opportunities, I’ve learned a lot about apologizing well, and also what to avoid.
Do you need to apologize?
Some circumstances beg for an apology: when someone feels upset, hurt, embarrassed, or offended, your best response is to apologize. Whether you’re told directly or just observe the other person’s behavior, it’s a chance to see if you did something wrong. If you did, a well-done apology goes a long way toward mending the connection you have with that person. Because relationships and people are important, apologizing well is also important.
A well-done apology goes a long way toward mending the connection you have with others.
It doesn’t matter if you think the other person contributed to the conflict—apologizing is about owning your part of the wrong. Expressing regret first, quickly, and without being asked sends the message that you value the other person. This is true after any conflict, but it is vital to apologize if a situation became violent.
It also doesn’t matter if you think the other person is justified in how they feel. Maybe you would not have been hurt by the same words or upset by the same actions. What matters is the person you care about feels hurt or upset, and because you care about them, you want to make things better.
How you think about your apology before hand really determines whether or not your words will matter. Your mindset should reflect a sincere desire to right a wrong, care for the other person, and restore the relationship. Check your tone and body language before you start.
If your motivation is simply to get the other person to stop being angry at you, your self-serving attitude will show.
On the other hand, if your motivation is simply to get the other person to stop being angry at you, your self-serving attitude will show sooner or later. Saying sorry because you think you have to will come across as insincere. It’s not so much your words but the state of your heart that matters.
Not only is there a right and wrong way to make an apology, but there are also degrees of good, better, and best practices. Generally, the more of these practices you use, the better your apology will be received. Here are some pieces to include:
- Express sincere regret. I’ve already mentioned how being sincere is important. Use the words, “I’m sorry” or “I apologize” rather than being vague and hoping the other person knows that you are communicating remorse.
- Be specific. Say exactly what you are sorry for. Just the word “sorry” or “sorry I hurt you” is not as good as including the details. “I’m sorry for yelling, storming out, and slamming the door” lets the other person know you’re aware of what you did wrong.
- Take responsibility. Studies show this step is the single most important element in an apology. Saying “I shouldn’t have done that” or “I was wrong” expresses ownership. On the other hand, following your apology with the word “but” or adding conditions nullifies everything you said earlier.
- Show repentance. Articulate what you are going to do to prevent your actions from happening again. I understand that losing emotional control is not something we can change simply by flipping a switch. However, sharing the specific actions you are taking to develop better emotional control demonstrates repentance. Not having a plan leaves the other person with little hope for change.
- Express care. Seek first to understand their feelings. Reflect their words back to them. Even if you don’t understand why the other person feels that way, a person’s feelings are real to them and not something to argue about. If you can’t see that you’ve done anything wrong, expressing care is better than nothing, and far better than defending your innocence.
- Offer repair. If you’ve broken something, fix or replace it. If you’ve let the other person down, provide an opportunity to make it up to them, then follow through with your new promise. Sometimes a repair is not obvious, so ask the other person what you can do to make it right.
Taking responsibility is the single most important element in an apology.
Counterproductive apology pieces
There are a couple of other items that make most people’s list of how to apologize, but that are best not to do. In some situations they make sense, but in others they create more problems than they solve.
- Explain what went wrong. This makes sense when the hurt or harm was purely accidental. “I’m sorry I was late for our date. My car broke down and I had no cell phone signal when I tried to call.” On the other hand, explaining can sound an awful lot like not taking responsibility. Worse is lying to make the situation sound like it was totally out of your control when it wasn’t, further eroding the other person’s trust.
- Make up but don’t change. Simply buying your way back into good graces focuses too much on smoothing things over and not enough on fixing the issue. Flowers, gifts, and loving attention might work for a while, but without real change, soon become shallow acts of avoiding responsibility. Stopping domestic violence takes real work, but long term it leads to a much better relationship and much less need to apologize.
- Ask forgiveness. This one really sounds opposite of conventional wisdom. Being ready to forgive can take time. Asking to be forgiven puts the offended party in a position where they can feel pressured to give it before they are ready. Forgiveness should never be anything we expect or demand. If you’ve done a good job of sincerely apologizing, you’ve done your part. Give the other person the time they need to forgive. If they never do, then that burden is on them, not you.
Forgiveness should never be anything we expect or demand.
When apologizing is hard
I know that apologizing is more difficult for some people than it is for others. I have a friend who grew up in a home where saying “I’m sorry” was met with a “You’re damned right you’re sorry” shaming. My friend had to relearn about how apologies are supposed to work and what would happen when he did before they felt safe. That turned out to be a valuable shift in his thinking and a good life skill for him to acquire.
Another mental block preventing apologies is wrongly connecting mistakes with our personal value. Everyone makes mistakes, and it does not mean we are bad or weak—just human. In fact, a person shows great strength and power by humbly and sincerely apologizing for their wrongdoings.
A person shows great strength and power by humbly and sincerely apologizing for their wrongdoings.
Remember the long-term goal of maintaining a strong, healthy connection and creating relationship harmony with others helps too. Apologizing for hurts and wrongs builds those connections. Ignoring the situation and hoping it blows over destroys the harmony. Apologizing just because you think you have to will make you resentful, so do it for the right reasons.
Apologies and domestic violence
After I hit my wife, I read a lot about domestic violence. One representation frequently used to describe domestic violence is the infamous “Cycle of Violence” model. And one of the stages of that cycle is the honeymoon, remorse, or apology stage.
The model says in this stage, offenders express remorse, promise to change, and are loving, but then the cycle starts all over again. I wanted to change my behavior, but this confused me. Should I apologize, or does my apology just signal that I’m going to get violent again? The answer is to apologize, although don’t hunt someone down who doesn’t want to see you to say you’re sorry. The problem is not the apology, but the failure to genuinely change as promised.
Apologize with all of the considerations above in mind. Be sincere and specific. Take responsibility and avoid blame. Have a plan of how you’re going to change, then follow though on it. Take time to understand how your actions have affected the person you love. Offer repair. That might include supporting them financially while they are separated from you for their safety.
I especially encourage you to not ask for or demand forgiveness. Domestic violence or abuse severely damages trust, which will take a long time (if ever) to rebuild. Let forgiveness be your partner’s choice while you focus on gaining the skills you need to prevent its recurrence. Apologize, then let your actions do your talking.
Apologize, then let your actions do your talking.
There is no guarantee that the other person will forgive you. That’s okay. If you’ve apologized sincerely and followed up on the commitments that accompany it, then you’ve done your part. You’ve given it your best shot at restoring the relationship, which is all you can do.
* Want more on this subject? I recommend the book When Sorry Isn’t Enough by Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas.