Sometimes I work with couples who really struggle to navigate giving and receiving apologies. Apologies may seem like a simple way to resolve conflict, but sometimes they fall flat or even backfire. Here’s how to avoid falling into common apology traps.
Why Don’t Apologies Always Help Resolve Conflict?
Apologies are helpful only if they fuel connection. When you and your partner feel connected, the tension between you eases. Sometimes apologies are wonderful connection catalysts. Realizing you hurt your partner, you might offer an authentic apology, and they might feel very validated by your words. But it doesn’t always work that way. If your apology comes too soon, your partner might not feel that you have really listened to them or made an effort to understand. Or your apology may seem like a signal that the conversation is over, which leaves them feeling dismissed, like their pain doesn’t matter since you have apologized. If you are receiving an apology from your partner, you might feel that their words don’t “sound right” or want them to say it another way. Or you may just not be done yet talking about how you feel.
Often, when couples struggle with apologies, they focus too much on saying and hearing “I’m sorry.” Apologies aren’t really the point - connection is. If you keep getting stuck around apologies, you may be focusing on the presence, absence, or quality of an apology instead of talking about feelings of disconnection and hurt.
What Are Some Signs You Might Be Focusing Too Much On Apologies?
So, how do you know if you and your partner are overemphasizing apologies in your relationship? Here are some common signs.
For The Apology Giver
You notice yourself feeling or expressing things like:
“I already apologized for that.”
“How many times do I need to apologize?”
“I don’t know what else you want me to say.”
For The Apology Recipient
You find yourself thinking or saying things like:
“Would it kill you to apologize?”
“That wasn’t a real apology. A real apology sounds like…”
“I don’t believe you’re actually sorry.”
If you find yourself talking a lot about whether one partner should say sorry or whether their apology seemed genuine, you may need to flip your script.
What Can You Do Instead Of Asking For Or Giving An Apology?
So what do you do instead, when one partner is hurt by the other’s actions or comments?
If you are the partner who misspoke, misstepped, or caused harm (regardless of your intentions), your main task is to listen to your partner with the goal of understanding. Then, once you do understand, you can show them that understanding by validating how they feel. This might sound like:
“I see how much my words hurt you.”
“You have a right to feel hurt.”
“I understand why what I did felt so bad to you.”
For the partner who is hurting, often apologies don’t land because you haven’t had enough air time yet to explain your pain. Rather than asking for an apology, ask for more time to talk about the hurt. Then, focus on sharing your feelings rather than revisiting your partner’s actions. This could look like:
“Can I tell you again how much I’m hurting right now?”
“I’m having trouble letting this go, even though you apologized. Can we keep talking about it for a few more minutes?”
“I feel scared of getting hurt again.”
If you and your partner generally apologize and receive apologies successfully, keep doing what you’re doing! But if you find yourselves stuck in a cycle of asking for apologies or giving apologies but feeling like they don’t land well, try shifting your focus away from “I’m sorry.” Apologies are fine, but connection is what really helps resolve tension and move forward from hurt.
If you are ready to go beyond apologies and find real connection with your partner, I am here to help couples do just that important work. Reach out today.