Apologizing with Intention: 4 Reasons Your Apology Didn’t Work

A young couple stand slightly apart on nighttime street. Street is out of focus, one partner looks down while other looks at the camera. Recently, I sat in session with a married couple named Dara and Mike. Speaking to one of the issues that brought them to therapy, Dara said, “Every time I tell him I don’t feel like a priority, he tells me it’s not true. Yet, he never spends any time with me.”

Dara began to tear up. I asked her what she felt in that moment. “Lonely,” she responded.

I turned to Mike and asked him, “What is it like for you to hear Dara say this makes her feel lonely?”

He turned to her and said, “I’m sorry you feel that way. That wasn’t my intention.”

Imagine a beautiful song on a record player suddenly coming to a screeching halt. What happened here?

As an intimacy breakthrough specialist, I can deconstruct this moment in many different ways. For this article, I’m going to focus specifically on Mike’s apology.

I promptly asked Mike, “Mike, what are YOU feeling right now?”

“Nothing,” he replied.

“Let’s talk about that,” I said.

Mike and I talked about four common mistakes partners make when apologizing.

Mistake No. 1

Your apology feels meaningless when you speak from a place of defense.

Including the words “I’m sorry” in your statement of an apology is not nearly enough. Mike’s apology proved ineffective. While he claims to have not felt anything, he more likely felt defensive and did not realize it. Defensiveness shut him down to what his wife was feeling. As a result, his apology did not feel sincere or heartfelt to Dara.

Mistake No. 2

Your apology lacks accountability when you focus on how your partner feels instead of what you did.

Mike phrased his apology as, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Notice how his apology focuses on Dara. It says nothing about him or his actions. It is as if he is making her feel bad for having her feelings, rather than focusing on how he has influenced those feelings. Basically, it’s an apology cop-out.

Mistake No. 3

Your apology feels empty and disconnected when you lack empathy.

When I asked Mike what he felt, he said, “Nothing.” Defense likely kept him from feeling sadness or any form of genuine empathy for Dara. Empathy required Mike to feel what Dara felt. If he allowed himself to look into her eyes, to see her tears, to connect to his own sadness and loneliness, he might have better understood Dara’s feelings. He then could have offered a more caring and meaningful response.

Mistake No. 4

Your apology focuses on intention and not consequences.

Intentions are great, but when they don’t produce the results you want, you need to reexamine what you are doing. It’s easier to hide behind your “intention” than it is to face the consequences of your actions.

I can recall specific times I have made this mistake. Intentions are great, but when they don’t produce the results you want, you need to reexamine what you are doing. It’s easier to hide behind your “intention” than it is to face the consequences of your actions.

Through our conversation, Mike quickly realized how and why Dara did not accept his apology. Once he dropped his defensive stance, he tuned into her more and allowed himself to step into his more difficult feelings of sadness. He finally connected to Dara’s pain and offered a genuine and sincere apology.

Dara felt his empathy and accepted his words. Their shared sadness helped them connect to their mutual vulnerability. This connection gave them a moment of true intimacy.

Conclusion

If you think you’ve apologized to someone and you can’t figure out why they won’t just “let it go,” check to see if your apology makes any of the four common mistakes above. If so, see if you can better align with your partner emotionally so you can truly understand their perspective. Drop your defenses and take an honest assessment of your actions. If you find that, yes, your partner’s perspective has a grain of truth, apologize for your part in it. For real.

Note: Names in the preceding account were changed to protect confidentiality.

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  • Miles

    Miles

    June 14th, 2017 at 7:15 AM

    My girlfriend has this really annoying habit of apologizing but not really if you know what I mean. She won’t apologize for her actions. It’s always about she is sorry she made me feel bad . And I am like well you made me feel bad because of what you said or what you did. Those are the things that you should be sorry for. I’m not sure that her ego will ever allow her to do that, to admit that she is wrong and I am pretty sure that this is going to continue to cause a giant rift between us.

  • Carlos

    Carlos

    June 15th, 2017 at 9:01 AM

    Well someone has to be open to receiving the apology too.

    You might do everything that you can to make things right but if they aren’t ready to forgive then it’s not going to work out.

  • Cassy

    Cassy

    June 15th, 2017 at 9:47 AM

    Mike sounds like me! prob why my boyfriend complains haha

  • Timothy

    Timothy

    June 17th, 2017 at 9:20 AM

    If there isn’t real feeling behind it then who on earth would ever want to accept that kind of apology? If it feels and sounds empty then chances are that it probably is and it will not mean anything to the person that you are trying to convince that it does.

  • Belle

    Belle

    June 19th, 2017 at 2:19 PM

    One way that you can look at this is determining if they are apologizing to make you feel better or to make themselves feel better. I think that if it is only done with the intent of getting rid of their own guilt then it is never going to have the same effect on you that it would if they did it out of a place of love and concern for you, not just for themselves. And most of the time I think that you can tell when someone is genuinely sorry or if they are just saying it to sweep it all underneath the rug and try to move on past it. They might be ready to move forward but that doesn’t always mean that you have to be yet.

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