It is impossible to have a relationship in which there is never need for an apology.
Being in relationships with others means risking the possibility that we will be hurt or disappointed AND that we will hurt and disappoint others.
Most of the time, the pain we cause is not intentional.
In my experience with hundreds and hundreds of human beings the majority have harmed someone AND the majority of those people did so very unintentionally (or at least, unconsciously).
Regardless of intention, the harm is still there. And, being able to hear the impact of your actions is incredibly important for maintaining a relationship and moving forward. However, we often respond by defending our intent. This almost always leads to power struggles.
Of course, there can be a time and a place for describing intent. In the immediate aftermath? Try listening and hearing impact. And, validate that their experience was real to them.
Once you have heard the impact of your actions, you get to choose what to do next. Do I want to continue this relationship? If yes, then it’s important you withhold defensiveness and explaining intention and rather choose to listen and understand the impact.
If you believe that the person is telling you the truth about how they FEEL then you must be willing to apologize for the impact if you would like to move forward.
A good apology will focus on relieving their burden, not yours. Although, bonus points if it also relieves your own guilt.
Let’s use you and me as an example:
If I bump into you and you fall down the steps and hurt your leg, your leg still hurts right? I didn’t MEAN to push you down the steps but I am still aware of the hurt.
Now, your response to me might be different depending on the intent – if it was an accident it is likely we will still be friends. If it was purposeful, there will need to be a good hard look at whether or not you’d like to continue the relationship with me (hint: you do not want to continue the relationship with me if I push you down the steps purposely – right?).
But, regardless of my intent AND regardless of how you would like to proceed with our relationship, I still need to offer you a good apology. Because, if I harm you then I need to do something to try to relieve you.
Apologies are not about reducing my own burden. The bonus of a good apology is that it WILL reduce my burden. But, the very best apologies put the focus on the person who has been harmed. And these apologies allow that person to choose whether or not the forgive, can move forward, or want continued dialogue about the incident.
But, what if I knock you down the steps accidentally and you don’t believe that it was accidental? What if you try to punish me for something I did not do. Or, what if you give no clear way to move forward from the incident? Then, I also get to consider whether or not I would like to continue my relationship with you.
Moving forward after a difficult incident takes two people – one person who is committed to apologizing and making amends and the other person that is willing to be clear about what is needed to heal and who is willing to see the actions that have been taken and allow the “debts” to be paid.
An apology template:
First, say you are sorry:
I am sorry that I bumped into you and it caused you to fall down the steps.
Next, be clear about what you understand the impact to be:
I know that the fall really hurt you and that you had to stay home from work and even visit the doctor.
If I was in your shoes I would be really upset about that. I would probably feel super disappointed and sad. And when you told me it made you not trust me anymore it made so much sense you would feel that way.
I really want to continue our friendship. I realize that you might not be ready to do this right now, but I hope you can forgive me at some point.
And, rebuild trust with your behavior:
What can I do to help you rebuild that trust? How can I make this right?
Remember, the apology is for them and not for you. The other person is allowed to respond in many ways. They might choose not to forgive you or they might choose to forgive very quickly. They get to choose, though.
Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT is a Philadelphia based therapist and writer. She lives in the suburbs with her husband, her son, and her dog Nola and runs A Better Life Therapy in Center City, Philly.