Recently I noticed the topic of apologies trending in conversations with clients. In one conversation, the husband shared that “I’m sorry” is a huge trigger for him. Minutes later his wife responded to something he said with “I’m sorry.” He felt disappointed and mad. After acknowledging his hurt and frustration, we began to unpack what she wanted to express with those two words.She described a feeling of sadness for what her husband experienced, sorrow that her actions had resulted in his hurt, and regret that she has not yet been able to stop doing the thing that hurt him. Inspired by the trending conversation, I decided to pull out and update an article I wrote about 15 years ago.
“I’m sorry” is adequate for some situations. Maybe you didn’t hear what they said the first time, or you were half asleep and put the TP on the holder backwards. “I’m sorry” can be a simple way to acknowledge that something you said or did had a negative impact on someone else. The problem with a two-word apology is that it’s vague. It can mean many things: I’m sorry I got caught, I’m sorry you’re upset, or I’m sorry I did something that hurt you, to name a few. Your partner may have no clue what or if you are feeling sorrow for. Some situations call for deeper apology or repair.
3 DEEPER LEVELS OF APOLOGY
TAKING RESPONSIBILITY: Apologize and explicitly own what we did that we are apologizing for.
EXPRESSING REMORSE: In addition to taking responsibility we demonstrate felt remorse and validate the legitimacy of our partner’s hurt. The wife’s expanded version of I’m sorry above is an example of this level of apology.
INJURY RESOLUTION: When a relationship has experienced a sudden break in trust a multi-part process is needed. This often requires professional assistance.
TAKING RESPONSIBILITY: Sometimes we need to make explicit that we know what we did and are taking responsibility for it. (This isn’t the same thing as accepting fault or blame. I can take responsibly for the impact of what I did, even when I didn’t do anything ‘wrong’.) Using the examples above, taking responsibility might look like: “I’m sorry I didn’t hear you. That must have been frustrating.” “I’m sorry. I didn’t notice I forgot that. I’ll fix it.”
EXPRESSING REMORSE: In addition to taking responsibility for our actions, you are demonstrating felt remorse and validating the legitimacy of their hurt. This level of apology is generally needed in times of significant offense or hurt like forgetting to pick your partner up as promised or worse. It might sound like, “I am so sorry that I forgot to pick you up as I promised. I left you stranded without a word. I can see why you were so upset; I can imagine you started to wonder if my work is more important than you are. Will you forgive me?
INJURY RESOLUTION is level of apology needed in times when trust has been broken. It is a multi-step process that goes far beyond apology and forgiveness, rebuilds trust, and heals the relationship bond. If you have experienced a trust breaking injury, you may benefit from the assistance of an Emotionally Focused Therapist trained in the Attachment Injury Resolution Model.
In these examples I primarily described expressing responsibility and remorse verbally. However, words are not the only way to communicate these experiences. I have seen a few partners convey deep sorrow and remorse through emotion expressed solely in their eyes or a few whispered words. Verbalized words are not always needed for your partner to experience the needed level of apology. What is most important, is for you to feel the level of sorrow or remorse you are expressing in a way that works for your partner to see, feel, or hear.
Is “Sorry” enough? Sometimes. The depth of apology should match the situation. If I accidentally shut a cupboard door that Kim was about to reach into, a simple sorry is probably all that is necessary. If I snap at her rudely, then admitting responsibility may be appropriate. If I make a joke at her expense, expressing remorse is probably called for. If I betrayed her trust in some way, then we need injury resolution.