The Art of a Good Apology

Learn how to apologize effectively. The key to a good apology is to break the escalation of an argument. An apology is a one way street.

“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” It wasn’t true in 1970 when Ali MacGraw said it in the movie Love Story and it’s still not true today. It’s one of those lines that sounds good but is really dysfunctional.  Of course you should say you’re sorry to the people you love!  Especially to the people you love. A good apology is the path toward more connectedness, intimacy, and belonging.  Therefore, knowing the art of giving a good apology is an essential life skill.

The Dance of a Relationship

We’ve been fed the lie that a good relationship means each person is perfectly content and in sync with their partner at all times; in a constant state of harmony. The truth is all relationships – not just romantic ones – are an endless dance of harmony, disharmony and repair.  Sadly, we are not taught the skills of repair in our culture.  We’re not even taught that it’s necessary.  Instead, we’re fed the bullshit that great relationships are harmonious all the time. 

The irony is that the foundation for great relationships is this cycle of harmony, disharmony and repair. The cycle provides us the opportunity to strengthen the connection to our partner.  Specifically, it is the repair phase that allows us to get emotionally closer and feel seen by our partner. Apologizing is the central element of this repair.  

Anatomy of a Disruption to a Relationship

When a disruption occurs in a relationship and no apology is forthcoming, things escalate. 

Terry Real's explanation of escalation

Each move up the escalation renders the other more and more helpless.  It is paralyzing. (You can’t take action on “You’re always late.”) The more paralyzed someone is in the relationship, the more dysfunctional the interaction becomes.

The Foundation for A Good Apology

An apology is a one-way street.  When someone comes to you in a state of disrepair, do not go tit for tat. It is not a dialogue or conversation.  That comes later.  You are at their whim.  Think of it as you would an interaction with customer service.

You @ a large international airport: You canceled my flight and I have to get to a meeting first thing in the morning. I need to be re-booked ASAP. Can you please help me?

Customer Service Rep @ said airport:  Let me tell you what I’m dealing with. First, there’s the weather in London that caused a bunch of delays, which has totally stressed me out.  I’m probably going to go into overtime today and I have yoga tonight. 

You would be sooooo annoyed if this was how it went.  You don’t care what the behind the scene problems are.  In that moment, you only care about your experience and want it fixed.  Maybe, once your flight is rebooked and the problem solved, you’d be open to hearing the backstory, but not before.  It’s the same way in a relationship.  The aggrieved person does not want to hear about your point of view until you first care about theirs.  

How To Apologize Effectively

The key to a good apology is to break the escalation.  How do you do that?  First, practice empathic listening. Be there in the experience of your partner, not your own experience.  There is no such thing as objective reality. It does not exist. You have to put yourself aside.  You acknowledge whatever you can about what your partner is saying, non-defensively.  Be vulnerable.  As renowned relationship therapist Terry Real says, “Show your neck to the fangs.” This disarms the aggrieved.  Don’t scan for what you disagree with.  Scan for what you can agree with. The more you show you get it, the less punitive the partner will be.  

Then, you take yourself up the escalation ladder.  When you go up the escalation ladder yourself, the more satisfied your partner will be.

Terry Real's explanation of escalation

Capstone it with, “Is there something I could say or do right now that would make you feel better?”  And then you do it. Do whatever they are asking. When you are faced with an unhappy partner, put yourself in their service. It’s not about giving in to your partner.  It’s about responding with generosity that will sustain your relationship and therefore you.  If you give to them, they too, will give to you. Apologizing really is an act of self-interest.

If you’d like to work on your relationships with a therapist, please contact us.  Our team of therapists are happy to help you gain the insights and skills you need to live the life you want to live.

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