My husband enjoys sharing some unsolicited, mostly lighthearted guidance with recently married men. He advises them to greet their partners with the words “I am sorry” when they see each other at the end of the day. In response to the quizzical looks he typically receives, my husband goes on to explain: “You probably did not do something you were supposed to do, or you did something you were not supposed to do. Better to be on the safe side and just apologize in advance.” His advice may be given in jest, but it did lead me to think about the issue of apologies and why we often struggle to sincerely apologize to others. At some point or another, the ability to express regret and say “I am sorry” is necessary to maintain healthy relationships. When we hurt others or need to own up to our mistakes, a genuine apology helps repair emotional damage and allows us to release painful feelings that otherwise might build up inside of us.
I believe that one reason we struggle with apologies is the lack of role modelling most of us have in this area. Growing up, the vast majority of us do not hear “I am sorry” very often from our parents. Of course, it might not be something we would expect to hear on a regular basis, but, chances are, most parents will at some point lose their temper and react too strongly, make incorrect assumptions, or simply do something in their parenting role that they later regret. In our household, kids and parents have committed minor infractions, such as failing to replace the toilet paper roll, as well as more major offenses, such as taking our bad moods out on others in the form of yelling, slamming doors, or harshly criticizing. When parents are the guilty party, kids’ feelings are certainly hurt as a result. If parents apologize in these situations, young people learn their hurt feelings are valid. They also begin to understand that there will be times in life when they may need to express sincere regret to someone else. These are important and powerful messages that, when modeled for our children, will help them grow up to form better relationships with others and become more responsible adults.
Many times, our first and strongest instinct is to defend ourselves, even when we quickly realize we have done something incorrectly. For example, one night I went out to dinner with a friend, who sat in the car’s passenger seat as we navigated a somewhat unfamiliar route to the restaurant. I drove on the expressway as we talked. Suddenly, she informed me I needed to take the next exit. I had not anticipated the need to exit so quickly and immediately started to work my way into the proper lane. Soon, I heard a shrill and extended car horn blast and realized I had moved into the next lane before adequately checking my blind spot for cars behind me: my actions resulted in the other driver having to maneuver to avoid a collision. Although I realized my error, I reacted with annoyance toward the other driver who honked at me. I commented on his rudeness, as I vehemently shook my head while he passed me, indignant even as my friend bravely pointed out the truth; I had cut him off and it was my mistake. My instinct to defend myself had taken charge. A parallel can be made to certain medical emergencies; if the actions in the first few seconds of a medical emergency are crucial to physical health, the words spoken in the first few seconds of a conflict are crucial to emotional health. It becomes so much more challenging to “put on the brakes” when we quickly assert our complete innocence. With some reflection, I took a deep breath, gave thanks that I had not caused an accident and uttered to my friend a short sentence that seems to give us so much trouble sometimes: “You are right and I am sorry.”
I certainly did not want to meet the other driver I narrowly avoided an accident with, but I wonder what response I might receive if I could apologize to him in-person. Another reason we may hesitate to apologize is the fear that our apology recipient may not be a “good sport”. Sometimes, instead of graciously accepting an apology, we use it as an opportunity to admonish, lecture, and generally indulge in making life miserable for the person at fault. I recall a time recently when a family member let our dog outside, got involved with something else, and forgot to let her back in. Given a longer amount of time outside than typical, our dog decided to start taking herself for a walk around the block. Thankfully we sent out a search party and located her just around the corner from our house. The family member who had made this mistake was the most distraught of anyone and immediately said “I am sorry” followed by “I promise to be more careful next time”. The temptation to preach about responsibility, mindfulness, and the horrors of “what could have been” faded as we tried to recognize this heartfelt apology. Of course, we eventually reiterated the importance of staying more focused in these instances, but hopefully we shared the lesson that a sincere apology really does lead to a more peaceful and positive outcome.
When we apologize for our mistakes or for our hurtful words or actions, we give another person the opportunity to truly forgive us. As we recognize that apologies such as these are frequently a struggle for us, it is also worth noting the other end of the spectrum: some of tend to be overly apologetic. These are situations where the apologizer feels guilty for asking to simply have their needs met; they are apologizing when it would be more appropriate to be appreciating. For instance, if we are eating out and our food is served cold, we really do not need to apologize for asking to have it sent back. Instead, we can simply say “thank you” for the staff’s efforts to right the situation. If our calendar is already overbooked and we need to decline an invitation, we need not apologize for this reality; we can simply say “thank you” for the other person’s understanding. Parents asking for other members of the household to help out with chores instead of trying to handle them alone need not apologize for voicing the need to have more support. Instead, they can say “thank you” to their families, secure in the knowledge that they need this assistance. In these types of scenarios, we do not really have anything to apologize for, but we do have something to express gratitude for.
Words of apology carry the most meaning in situations where we need to take ownership of a choice that has negatively impacted someone else. So, at the end of the day, my husband’s suggestion to proactively say “I am sorry” in order to avoid conflict certainly will not change any relationships for the better. Behind those playful words of advice, though, lies a reminder that when we need to take responsibility for our actions, an honest apology works wonders to repair a broken connection with someone else. Also, when it is our turn to accept an apology, we have a responsibility to do so with the same gracefulness we would want for ourselves.
Whichever side of an apology you find yourself on, it is always a chance to strengthen your relationship with someone else.
Laura B. joined Empathia in 2000 as an EAP Counselor. Laura has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, with a concentration in marriage and family therapy. Prior to joining Empathia, she worked as a case manager with chronically mentally ill adults readjusting to life in the community. Laura enjoys reading, attending kids’ activities and spending time with family.