After the Apology: When Being Sorry Isn’t Enough

Man consoling sad woman on sofaAll close relationships have difficult moments, times when partners feel hurt, disappointed, or frustrated with one another. But some wounds are so deep they threaten the fabric of the relationship. At these times, the wounded partner’s experience can typically be summarized as either: “When I needed you most, you weren’t there for me,” or, “I trusted you and you betrayed me.” Either way, the spoken or implied reaction is, “I will never trust you and risk being so hurt and disappointed again.”

Practitioners of emotionally focused therapy (EFT), a well-researched, effective model of couples therapy, call these destructive experiences attachment injuries. EFT encourages hurt partners to share not just the facts about their injury, but the deep pain and sadness they experienced. Offending partners are helped to listen non-defensively, fully understand the emotional impact of their behavior on the injured partner, and express sincere remorse and regret. Couples are then guided through the process of asking for and receiving the comfort and support that was missing at the time of the injury.

When partners complete this process, many find their bond is not just repaired but strengthened. They understand each other’s needs and experiences in new ways that allow them to be more responsive to each other in the future.

But for a number of couples, understanding their partner’s experience and offering heartfelt apologies is not enough. The wounded partner still has trouble moving on, and the remorseful partner feels stuck in purgatory, not knowing what more to do.

If you have ever been that remorseful partner, unable to regain your partner’s trust, chances are you have experienced your own emotional pain. You may have felt hurt your partner wouldn’t give you another chance, sad your thoughtless behavior had such monumental consequences, ashamed of what you did, scared you would never repair your relationship, or angry your partner was unwilling to move on.

Chances are, you felt confused and stuck. What more did your partner want from you? What more could you do?

At that moment, your confusion, fear, anger, hurt, or despair placed you at high risk of doing something to make things worse. Or, afraid to say or do the wrong thing, you might have done nothing at all. Either way, your good work in understanding and acknowledging past mistakes could easily be undone.

But for a number of couples, understanding their partner’s experience and offering heartfelt apologies is not enough. The wounded partner still has trouble moving on, and the remorseful partner feels stuck in purgatory, not knowing what more to do.

What you may not have understood is that you—your presence, comfort, and understanding—were the key to your partner’s recovery. Your partner felt alone and abandoned at a vulnerable time. The antidote to this painful memory is to experience your presence whenever they share their pain, for as long as it takes to believe they can count on you again.

Whether partners share pain for the first time or for the hundredth, they are asking, “Do you really care how I feel? Are you really there for me now?” If the answer is, “Yes, I’m here and I care, and I’ll be here for as long as it takes,” your relationship has taken at least a small step forward. If you grow impatient, if you get angry or defensive or hopeless, your partner may again feel dismissed or alone at a time of need. In other words, you will have replayed and reinforced the original hurt.

A couple I recently saw—I’ll call them Allison and Mark—exemplify how couples can continue to struggle after a heartfelt apology. After months of working on their relationship in therapy, Allison summoned the courage to tell Mark how deeply wounded she had been since a dismissive remark he made to her several years earlier, at a time she was depressed and overwhelmed.

Because of the good work they had already done on their relationship, Mark was able to take in Allison’s experience without defending himself or minimizing her pain. Understanding the magnitude of her wound, he was stricken. He expressed his heartfelt apology and sat with her in a moment of shared sorrow.

But the wall Allison had put up to protect her from ever feeling that vulnerable and hurt again did not immediately come down. “I wish I could just take the wall down and move on,” she told him sadly, “but I can’t yet. I don’t know why.”

And then he panicked. What if Allison never recovered from this injury? What if there was no way to undo or repair the damage? What if she decided he couldn’t be the man she needs?

In his panic, Mark tried to convince her they couldn’t change the past and she needed to begin trusting him again. He understood what he did wrong, and he would try to be a better partner. But instead of feeling reassured, Allison felt he was telling her, “You shouldn’t be feeling hurt and alone anymore. You should be able to move on.”

If the conversation stopped here, as it often did at home, Allison would have felt Mark was once again dismissing her feelings, leaving her to struggle alone. She would have felt less trust in him than before the apology and added a few more bricks to her self-protective wall.

But this time, I was able to explain that Allison needed a different kind of reassurance. Mark then turned to her and said, “I’ll wait as long as you need me to. I don’t care how long it takes for you to take the wall down. I’m here and I love you.”

And with that, their relationship took a small but important step forward.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ruth Jampol, PhD, therapist in Newtown, Pennsylvania

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 24 comments
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  • Leah

    Leah

    May 23rd, 2016 at 10:27 AM

    Don’t you think that it is sort of selfish for someone to withhold the forgiveness once the other person has apologized? If they have said that they are sorry and have tried what they can to make amends, then how many more back flips should they have to jump before you finally agree to give then what they seek, which is probably a continuation of the relationship with you? I don’t know, I just think that there are many people who withhold just out of spite, and that in itself should demand that they offer the other person an apology too.

  • Dr. Ruth Jampol

    Dr. Ruth Jampol

    May 23rd, 2016 at 11:55 AM

    Leah, it certainly can often look like a person is withholding forgiveness out of spite, especially if you’re the person asking for forgiveness! But in my experience, most people are not making an active choice not to forgive. Rather they – like Allison in the article – find themselves unable to move forward even though they want to. They may not know why, and their partner almost certainly doesn’t know why. I’m hoping this article can give couples an understanding of what the injured partner might need so partners can be more patient with themselves and each other.

  • Jeni

    Jeni

    May 23rd, 2016 at 2:18 PM

    Just because you say that you are sorry does not mean that it is always over and done. I still might need a little time to process everything that goes along with that apology and just because you are ready to apologize does not mean that I have to automatically be ready to accept the apology/

  • Ren

    Ren

    May 24th, 2016 at 6:22 AM

    Not only does the offender’s reaction to the hurt partner’s concerns shapes how the relationship moves forward, the offender’s “new and improved” choices speak volumes. If his/her choices coincide with the claimed character changes, then the forgiveness process is possible. When the reality is “I have mostly changed but not when it comes to this other aspect of my life,” the hurt partner has no way of measuring if the relationship is safe. The continued choice to compartmentalize right/wrong toward different people/situations suggests that core changes have not taken place. Thus trust is not possible and the relationship remains in limbo until resolved.

  • Pres

    Pres

    May 24th, 2016 at 7:45 AM

    And we are saying that we hold onto these things for years? Ok so that is someone who needs to get a grip.

  • Lee

    Lee

    May 24th, 2016 at 10:26 AM

    Most of us just have to sort of work our way through it and there will be some times when the apology is enough and then other times when we need a smidge more time to process it. We all work on our own time frame and shouldn’t be forced to accept it if we are truly not ready.

  • harry

    harry

    May 25th, 2016 at 8:51 AM

    So what else are we supposed to do?

  • Dr. Ruth Jampol

    Dr. Ruth Jampol

    May 27th, 2016 at 4:16 AM

    Harry, your question is a common one. It often feels like not taking decisive action is the same as doing nothing at all. But if you can be present, empathic, and reassuring with your partner every time he or she remembers the wound and gets upset, you are doing the most needed, powerful thing you can. Wounds this deep always have an element of “You weren’t there for me then when I needed you” or “You abandoned me.” So what your partner needs most is to know that you are there for them now when they feel their pain, that they are not alone, and that you will not abandon them, even if they need more time to get past their hurt.

  • Cely

    Cely

    May 27th, 2016 at 9:49 AM

    I honestly believe that there are days when my boyfriend will withhold that forgiveness on purpose. It is like it is something that he knows he can use against me so he intentionally does that. I would love it if he would just grow up a little, admit that we all make mistakes form time to time, and that none of us are perfect, even him.

  • Allison Wahl

    Allison Wahl

    May 28th, 2016 at 10:12 AM

    If you love your partner enough then you will see right away that this is going to take a little more than simply saying that you are sorry. Making up for a wrong that you have done or a mistake that was made often cannot be done overnight. There are those of us who need time to to process, grieve and heal before we are ready to move past that mistake. I think that the biggest thing that you can do is to have some patience, and know that this is what has to be done if you want to repair the damage that has been done.

  • William

    William

    August 17th, 2016 at 8:53 PM

    Thank you for that advice. I really needed to read that. Our communication is very limited with our problem. I just need to give her time and space to work all this through.

  • Jake

    Jake

    May 29th, 2016 at 10:01 AM

    more often than not, forgiveness has to be earned.

  • Delaney

    Delaney

    May 29th, 2016 at 7:07 PM

    I for one am tired of being made to feel like I have to accept an apology after it is given. I know that it would probably be the better thing to do, take the high road and all, but it hurts and I don’t think that I should have to accept it even when it may be thoughtfully given. And I try to understand that when the shoe is also on the other foot and someone does not want to accept an apology from me. It’s hard at times to be an adult and although I really do want to, sorry isn’t always good enough for me. Selfish?

  • Gina

    Gina

    June 30th, 2016 at 7:34 AM

    Only 6 months after getting married, my wife had an affair. She was remorseful, but the affair continued. I have forgoven her and I still love her on a diffrent level, but unfortunately for her, I cannot trust her in such an intimate relationship again. We are now separated and communicate daily by phone and/or text. Our friendship is intact, but I could never trust her in that realm of a relationship again. Sad, but true.

  • Alexis

    Alexis

    June 30th, 2016 at 9:13 PM

    I just found out 2 weeks ago my husband of 21 yrs (+ 2yrs living together before marriage) has been seeing another woman-i had suspected something going on,but never dreamed he would cheat on me-if only i had checked our phone records before the day our grandson suddenly said-papas girlfriend came to the camp to see papa-of course i ran to our bedroom and said come here-then asked our grandson to repeat what he just said-hubby said i dont have a girlfriend-and then went back into our bedroom and shut the door-i went in and said look what the hell is going on? he said well yeah i saw her and we had sex,but only 2 times-you werent ever happy it seemed when i came home off the road and you took days before you would sleep with me- i told him so you slept with her and you are blaming me for your choices? thats probably one of the few times ive “talked back” to him-his son ,wife 2 kids and the sons mother (hubbys ex wife) are living here right now so it hasnt left us with much privacy to talk or argue- so weve only had couple of talks about this-he quit the job in may that he was with traveling all the time-(the woman he was seeing works for the company he was at)gone sometimes 3-4 wks and it did take a few days to get used to him being home-especially when the first thing hed do would be to complain constantly about his job,and all he had to do-then start in on me put me down and talk ugly and rudely to me-it made it hard to be close to him-hes a bully towards me,and i see that now,he is a good man,works hard but he complains about EVERYTHING-im the quiet one,i dont talk back to him when he goes off-i let him have his say, i have been talked to like a dog at times,and then minutes later he wanted to have sex- over the years this has just gotten so hard to deal with and has made me feel like my feelings dont matter to him-long as i do all i can to make him happy hes ok-i checked our phone records and hes been having long conversations with her since Febuary on his personal phone-sometimes the call totals for a day would be 3 hrs,during working hours-but he always told me not to call him while he was working because he couldnt talk-he says he is sorry,but thats about it-i just cant forgive him yet-it was 2 wks ago i found this out-i was so upset and saddened i told him i dont know if i can forgive you-and i took off my wedding band and told him ive worn this wedding band for 21 yrs and 10 days- it must mean more to me than it did to you and i cant /wont put it back on until i feel like you are in this marriage and it means as much to you as it does me- i have so many questions i need answers to ,and even wrote my thoughts and feelings down pretty much every day since i found this out- i leave my notebook in the bathroom where he can read what i wrote, but he only wrote down a short paragraph saying he knew he did wrong,he was sorry but he didnt know what i expected him to do- until i have the answers to my questions his apology means zilch -and i cant go forward til i know-i am sleeping in the living room in a recliner and wont share the bed with him-i cant even stand to see him naked, i keep thinking of him being with her,and just have to turn my head and leave the room-he doesnt seem to be sorry,just indifferent.anyone have any advise? cant afford a therapist-he is still out of work,luckily we had some savings but it wont last much longer-he is applying for jobs and had interview in the am-but it will be a long while before we have any money for anything other than bills-

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    July 1st, 2016 at 8:58 AM

    Dear Alexis,

    Please know that our site and comments on our blog posts are never intended to be a substitute for professional marriage counseling. Also, there are many licensed marriage and family therapists who offer sliding scale fees based on income. Many of our members indicate this on their profiles, and you can easily contact them to ask right from their profile if they don’t state it clearly. If you would like to consult with a mental health professional, please feel free to return to our homepage, https://www.goodtherapy.org/, and enter your zip code into the search field to find therapists in your area.

    Once you enter your information, you’ll be directed to a list of therapists and counselors who meet your criteria. From this list you can click to view our members’ full profiles and contact the therapists themselves for more information. You are also welcome to call us for assistance finding a therapist. We are in the office Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time; our phone number is 888-563-2112 ext. 1.

    Kind regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • William

    William

    August 17th, 2016 at 8:45 PM

    In my last relationship, I was dumped for another man. She was talking to him for 2 months before our breakup. My trust issues have carries over to my recent relationship and I made a big deal out of a photo posted on social media. I was asked to drop it and and I had nothing to worry about. Unfortunately I could not drop it, and it seems that my actions have destroyed this relationship. She invited another man to a morning meet up with her best friend and said it was no big deal and it was last minute. Was I in the wrong to question her actions and the situatuon? She teens me today, she is not anywhere ready for a relationship and she is super pissed about it all and she was reminded why she is single. I’m so numb inside I don’t know where to begin. I feel betrayed, hurt and made to feel it was my fault? Was it my fault? Please help. I need clarity to all this. She has not wanted to communicate at all.

  • Dr. Ruth Jampol

    Dr. Ruth Jampol

    August 23rd, 2016 at 10:40 AM

    William, this doesn’t sound to me like a situation where one person is clearly right and one is clearly wrong. You both have strong feelings about what happened, and the way each of you communicated (or did not communicate) about these feelings has left you both feeling worse. Often people either attack in anger or shut down in silence when underneath they are hurt or scared. If your girlfriend won’t go to couples counseling with you to work out these issues, I suggest you consider going to therapy yourself and that you choose a therapist with expertise in relationships and emotions, such as an Emotionally Focused Therapist. Good luck.

  • Jay

    Jay

    September 1st, 2017 at 12:27 PM

    Dr. Ruth,
    I don’t have a problem with forgiveness when I have been wronged. However, when a persons actions over time start showing that perhaps their apologies are a little less than viable because some of the same things being apologized for are still occurring though maybe not as much…(some corrective effort is seen…)
    What is it called when they get mad at you because you don’t immediately “get over” the damage they have done because they “apologized”?
    Its like they think they waved a magic wand and think you should just be OK now no matter how deep the wound was.
    I am talking about harsh words being spoken…but I mean real harsh…ones that would strike at the core of your person…who you actually are. Very hurtful words.

    it upsets me because I have to deal with the damaging words…and then I am not even allowed time for healing or true evaluation of the events that have transpired…thats like a double whammy…ya know?
    (we are talking a short time span here of less than 24 hours…but mostly withing about 4 hours)

    What makes them tic…when they get mad because you dont immediately get over “it”…whatever it is….?

    Thanks in advance…

  • Rainey

    Rainey

    August 8th, 2018 at 10:46 AM

    This is an excellent article. I can absolutely relate but my abuser was my brother and now, just discovered so late in my life that my Mother is a true Narcissist. When I was 7, my brother sexually, verbally and physically abused me for years tapering into my teens. I did tell my Mother after I was encouraged by a friend to “Tell Mom” when I broke down in tears one evening at her house. I was still a child but I just couldn’t hold in my pain anymore. I was “of course” afraid to tell Mom for fear of her reaction. My friend assured me she would be with me for support. Oh my, what a disaster! She never seemed to really hear what I was trying to tell her, she was only livid that my friend was there! She never brought it up again thus allowing my brother to continue his abuse. I suffered alone. This brother attempted an apology much later in my life but it was truly one sided, it was clear he was doing it to get it off HIS chest as he said what he needed to say and when I attempted to tell him my feelings, he got up and made the dismissive comment, “We just need to quit hating each other.” I was stunned. Yes I did build that wall, brick by brick a long time ago and I too feel unable to know how I can remove it as it does affect my marriage. I know if he had been sincere in his apology and was willing to hear me out and respect my feelings, we could have made progress but instead, since I have not forgiven him, he continues to lash out using guilt as his tool and religion to scare me. This only deepens my animosity towards him. He still cannot even “OWN” what he did. It is alway’s an excuse or ridiculous reasoning why he did what he did but never just taking full responsibility. How can you forgive someone if they simply keep fanning the flames? Now, at almost 50 years of age, I see the damage my mother inflicted all the way through to now, she has been pitting all of us against each other with lies in her triangulation communication tactics. This has been going on for many years I just discovered. She manipulated me into being her caregiver by telling me lies about my brothers not wanting to deal with her when she was diagnosed with dementia. I somehow felt obligated and gave her nearly a decade of my life being her slave. I feel like the worlds biggest sucker.

  • Jennifer S.

    Jennifer S.

    February 15th, 2019 at 10:19 PM

    My husband has been physically abusing me for years. I eventually called the police on him for the first time, 2 months ago, after he attacked me in front of our children and our baby who started crying hysterically. I put in a DVRO and was going to file for divorce. But, he claims he has been taking therapy and change and knows he should not have hurt me. Claims he didn’t know it was traumatizing me or that bad that I would eventually call the police. I am confused. He has a PhD from Harvard in Physics. How could he not know that , for instance, hitting me in the head and giving me a concussion wasn’t “wrong”? How could he not know that beating me with his fists and belt while I was 37 weeks pregnant not ‘abuse’ or ‘traumatic’? How could he now know that kicking me in the back, dragging me out of the bed by my hair, and twisting my arm behind my back a few months ago wouldn’t ‘traumatize’ me? He keeps on apologizing and says he is taking therapy and DV workshops and now understands what he did was wrong and wants us to ‘heal’ and be a family again. He is insisting that he has changed and if I don’t try to ‘heal’ with him and rebuild our family, it will be my fault that our family is destroyed and our finances ruined if I don’t drop the DVRO (since he claims he will lose his high paying job if the employer finds out there is a DVRO against him- I think he won’t and is trying to guilt me). But, he says this all with ‘apology’ and claiming he has ‘changed.’ That there is something wrong with me for not accepting his apology and dropping the DVRO and letting him back into my life and live in the house. I tell him I am terrified and traumatized and he keeps on being ‘pushy’ about reassuring me that he is change and will never lay a finger on me again. I have 18 documented incidents of physical assault over the last 5 years. I don’t know how or why I should forgive him and TRUST he has changed after 7 weeks since being arrested. Or, am I ‘paranoid” and can abusive partners CHANGE, or, is he manipulating me. I feel that the DVRO gives me protection but he says it is not necessary and says I need to downgrade it to a peaceful contact order so his job won’t be jeopardized. I don’t want him back but he claims if that doesn’t happen, he’ll fall apart from the stress of everything, won’t be able to maintain his job and or lose it if HR finds out he now has a DVRO, and since he is the income earner we will be financially destroyed since he claims he can’t find another job for 12-18 months with a DVRO on file. Please help.

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    February 16th, 2019 at 9:53 AM

    Dear Jennifer,

    Thank you for your comment. We wanted to provide links to some resources that may be relevant to you here. We have more information about domestic violence at http://www.thehotline.org/ and additional information about what to do in a crisis at http://www.goodtherapy.org/in-crisis.html.

    Warm regards,
    The GoodTherapy Team

  • Timothy

    Timothy

    May 28th, 2019 at 11:01 PM

    In order to move on I usually remove the source of trauma from my life . When simply looking at them begins to irritate me apologies are no longer enough and I don’t want to hear it anyway.

  • Deborah

    Deborah

    June 24th, 2019 at 8:23 AM

    The rare moments he was able to empathize w/the totality of the suffering he caused me, he can barely tolerate what he’s experiencing. He looks terrified, trembles w/tears, has difficulty speaking even catching his breath. I no longer feel it is a man I’m staring at, rather a terrified, destabilized child. When he gets himself together he’s able to express remorse then attempts to compartmentalize his behavior as if he’s speaking about two different people. The old him verses the new him.

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