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Owning Your Apology: Name It, Claim It, and Do It Now

Two people with umbrellas in the rain stand apart looking back toward each otherWhen you have done something to hurt another person, how quick and competent are you with an apology? While some people over-apologize as a daily practice, others neglect opportunities to strengthen a relationship by authentically apologizing when having caused pain.

It is important to not only recognize when an apology is due but to understand how to atone and when. “I’m sorry if something I said or did bothered you” is not an apology. It is missing two key components: naming the offending action and claiming it.

Naming the Offending Action

As an example, say one partner withdrew money allocated for household bills from a joint account to spend it on something spendy they wanted. Naming the behavior could sound something like, “I was not forthcoming about the money I spent from our joint account. I wanted something, and I knew I should have run it by you first. When you asked me about the money withdrawn from the account, I evaded your question instead of admitting I took it out for myself.” Notice how straightforward and objective the statements are.

When naming the offensive behavior, resist the urge to blame others, defend yourself as if it was justified, or minimize what you did. These approaches diminish the sentiment of the apology and may communicate that you are not sorry for what you did—just sorry it created consequences for you. Considering what you would do if you had a “do-over” is a good way to name the behavior.

Claiming the Pain Caused

A well-executed apology includes claiming the result the behavior caused, which can be on a continuum from inconvenience to pain. In the example of money taken from a joint account, claiming it could look like this: “When I avoided your question about the money instead of answering you, it made you wonder if you could trust me because we are supposed to be on each other’s sides. It felt like I was putting my own wants over what is best for us.”

When claiming your behavior, offer to hear how what you did affected the other person. If the person is willing to be vulnerable enough to share their feelings, reflect (but don’t parrot word-for-word) what you heard. “When you saw I had taken money out of our account without consulting you, it made you feel like you are not important to me. I did not know that and am glad you told me.” The key is to demonstrate you grasp the implications of your actions.

Timing an Apology

Don’t wait to apologize. As soon as you realize you owe someone an apology, initiate steps to make it right.

Do not expect forgiveness; that is the responsibility of the person offended.

It may not be possible to apologize right away, but consider at least reaching out to set up a time to talk. For example, if you said something to your partner just before you both left for work and you need to apologize for your part, you may not be able to talk it through right away, but consider sending a text reading, “Could we talk for a few minutes at lunch so I can apologize for what I said?” This keeps the hurt from having time to settle in and take hold, and says, “I made a mistake, but I care about your feelings.”

Making Amends

If it is possible to correct the offense, do so. In the example about taking money from a joint account, it could be to return the money to the account as soon as possible. If unclear about what would help heal the wound, ask the person who has been hurt; sometimes the expression of true remorse is enough.

Intentions matter. If an apology is approached with sincerity and empathy for the pain that was caused without avoiding accountability, the precise words may be less important than the spirit of the message. Do not expect forgiveness; that is the responsibility of the person offended, should they choose to offer it.

Apologizing for things you wish you could take back is a way of demonstrating integrity. While reparation is primarily about the other person’s feelings, a heartfelt apology and correction, when possible, also mends the most important relationship—the one you have with yourself.

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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.

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  • Tally

    December 9th, 2016 at 11:05 AM

    There are those people though who really do not know how to apologize to another person at all. They are the people who will somehow make you feel like what they did wrong was actually something that was caused by you, like your own behavior was what made them hurt you in the first place.
    that is BS to me. If you did it, own it, say it, apologize for it so the rest of us can move on. If you want to continue to lie to me and yourself, I don’t need that in my life.

  • Ava

    December 13th, 2016 at 12:57 AM

    What I believe you are describing is called denial. and you are right. but i want to say that I feel it is something underdeveloped psychologically in the other person. I believe it is a form of abuse. IF you think about it. you are almost describing someone negating your experience. that is abuse. on a more extreme level – the person would be considered a sociopath. – A sociopath is someone who does not expresss or cannot express true remorse and empathy for what they have done. The best apology is changed behaviour. Anyone who owns it , apologizes for it and tries to make amends for it has my respect and is worth being in a relationship with. that other garbage. One strike- and i am aware. two strikes you get a warning- on the third offence- f=drop them and move on. Never to be seen again. green yellow red. period.

  • max

    December 11th, 2016 at 10:08 AM

    I am pretty sure that there are times when I have thought that oh, If I just don’t say something about it then the person I hurt will forget a ll about it. That unfortunately is never the truth and it usually only makes things worse between you when you choose to totally avoid the fact that you have said or done something that hurts them.

  • Lucille

    December 12th, 2016 at 9:03 AM

    At this point in my life if my husband ever apologized for anything I think that I would probably pass out.

  • Ava

    December 13th, 2016 at 12:59 AM

    Lucille, I read an article today that said just that. IF you are ready to apologize for nothing and mean it, you are ready for marriage. Your husband needs an implant. God Bless you, you did make me laugh. :)

  • Lucille

    December 13th, 2016 at 12:11 PM

    haha Ava glad to hear that at least something good comes out of this! ;)

  • Lester

    December 14th, 2016 at 2:14 PM

    I think that in the end of my marriage it finally boiled down to I really wasn’t married to a very honest person it just took me a long time to understand that.

    I felt like everything that she had told me was a lie, like everything that came out of her mouth was a lie because that was the only truth that I could eventually come to see.

    her lies and untruths are what finally broke the camel’s back for us, and I just decided that if she didn’t care enough about me to be straight with me, then she didn’t care enough about me to be married to me.

  • Lucy

    September 27th, 2019 at 8:42 AM

    This is currently the relationship that I have with my parents. They won’t admit to anything, they can’t. It is nothing but excuses. That is why I don’t have a relationship with them. They put it back on you. Currently not speaking to a friend who won’t apologize but when I questioned his behaviour he made a personal attack. Such is life.

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