I Said I Was Sorry, So Why Isn’t That Enough?

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard this from couples during a session. Something big happens between them, like one person cheated, the offending party apologizes but the difficulty continues and the person who said sorry wonders why. The person who got hurt wants to feel better. The person who has apologized becomes exasperated because he or she feels they have done everything they can. “I said I was sorry. What else do you want from me?”

Unfortunately this is frustrating for both people. Each person wants to feel better, yet both feel like something is unfinished. The person who hurt the other wants to make their partner whole, but the words “I am sorry” are just not enough. Why not? Why aren’t they enough? Why isn’t just saying I am sorry for what I have done to you enough?

If it were enough we wouldn’t be talking about what isn’t finished. And what’s not finished is the healing that the wounded feels and continues to experience. The person who got wounded is usually in some deep pain. When the person who caused the hurt says “I am sorry”, that usually lifts the guilt of the person who offended, but it doesn’t begin to heal the deep pain the offense caused. That’s why just saying “I am sorry” is not enough.

So what would be enough? What can couples do to really fix a gaping whole that exists between them? The first thing I like to help couples do is understand what happened. It’s much deeper than explaining what a person did to the other. Often couples feel that if they talk about the problem one time, it’s all done. Unfortunately many couples will delve into a difficult topic, talk about it once, and then both will feel the issue is settled. But it’s not. I know that the first conversation is crucial, but it is only a very first baby step. That’s all, just one little tiny baby step.

Think about it. You are wounded by your partner’s infidelity. You are devastated and you don’t know if you can forgive and forget at this moment. Your world is rocked and you aren’t sure if you will even be able to go on living with this person. Now your mate sees your condition and says to you, “I love you. I am so sorry for what I have done. Will you forgive me?”

In a moment of feeling lost and alone you hear those words and they feel like medicine on a very hurt heart. Your partner says he or she is sorry, that they love you, and that they want you to forgive them. They promise they will not leave you and they deeply emphasize how truly sorry they are for hurting you. You feel so sad and lost you just want to make everything better, like it was before you were wounded. You want this so much you say with all the hope in the world, “Yes. I forgive you. I love you too.”

And for the moment you really believe you will be OK. In that one magical moment you hope you will be able to go back to the way you were and make everything the way it was before the affair, before you knew any of this.

And everything is OK for that moment. But that moment doesn’t last very long because in your mind the next image you have is of your partner with the other person. You start to wonder when he or she stopped being faithful to you and became interested in another. You start to think about times when he or she might have lied to you. You begin to wonder about the moments you might have suspected something but you brushed it aside because you believed they would never do anything like that to you. You knew in your heart they could never do anything like that to you.

You live afraid that everything you know is crumbling and you don’t know what to do. You can’t move. You live in disbelief that the one who you committed yourself to has been unfaithful. You try and bring up some of these feelings because they are eating you alive. You try and talk to your mate but when you bring up the subject he or she gets angry and says, “I already said I was sorry. What else can I do?”

Healing after a breach like infidelity takes time and work. An apology is a place to start, but that is all it does; it open the door to the next process. And that next step includes understanding what happened, for both people, and asking all the hard questions like, “Do you still want me?”

To learn more about apologies, anger, and infidelity, contact Linda Nusbaum and read Linda’s blog about couples and relationships.

© Copyright 2011 by Linda Nusbaum, MA, MFT. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

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.

  • Leave a Comment
  • jake f.

    September 27th, 2011 at 10:35 AM

    I’m very quick to say sorry if I have hurt someone. Having been on the receiving end and knowing how painful it can be, I don’t hang about. What I’ve never understood is why those apologies aren’t accepted to where the thing’s over and done with when it’s obvious I’m sincere. I’m not talking about anything big like infidelity. I’m talking about saying something dumb that hurts a friend when I’m trying to be funny.

    I think I get it a bit more now than I did. Thanks for the help.

  • Brooke Carter

    September 27th, 2011 at 11:20 AM

    Sorry doesn’t wipe the slate clean. No way! We can all utter the word “sorry”. That doesn’t mean you mean it. And yet I know men who are serial cheaters and their long-suffering partners keep taking them back and acting as if it’s some mystical word that cures all a relationship’s ills.

    “But he said sorry and he’ll never do it again!” they’ll say-as if that’s going to happen. Yeah right. It’s barely months later before they catch him again.

    Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

  • Sharon Gillespie

    September 27th, 2011 at 11:26 AM

    @Brooke Carter: I have no sympathy for partners that take back cheaters and continue to let it happen again and again. Once a cheater, always a cheater. Men are as guilty of taking them back as women are too. Have some semblance of dignity people, for goodness sake! Infidelity’s going to hurt you every time and chip away at your self-esteem. Don’t accept it.

    Once is possibly a mistake and forgivable in time. Twice or more is planned. Walk away immediately and find someone that deserves your loyalty if they do it more than once.

  • rodney

    September 27th, 2011 at 3:41 PM

    MY partner may say that he is sorry, but there is no action behind the words, know what I mean? He says them but I do not get the feeling that deep down inside he means it. It is his way of trying to end the argument but not really solving the problem. Kind of like putting a band aid over an open wound. It might cover it up for a little while but it still festers underneath and never really heals.

  • James R

    September 27th, 2011 at 4:30 PM

    Sorry isn’t the all powerful, infallible excuse that many think it is. Sorry should not be thrown around as lightly as it is today. The only time when sorry is appropriate for use is when you have wronged someone and fell bad about it.

    Accidentally stapling an extra page to a report is not something to be sorry about. Cheating on your partner is. I challenge you to only say sorry when you mean it. This will help solve the many discrepancies this word can have. Saying a word isn’t enough for your partner to forgive you, but actually meaning it and showing it is.

    Sharon, you are ruthless! Everybody makes mistakes and if a partner regrets his actions and shows you he is sorry you should give a second shot. Just my opinion so take it with a grain of salt


    September 27th, 2011 at 11:29 PM

    We say sorry for the slightest of things..I did this I’m sorry , I did that I’m sorry. What this has done,according to me,is that it has made us immune to the word itself! As a society, we have forgotten the meaning of the word! This means a recipient of the word will always doubt whether the other person really meant it and if the mistake really will not happen again. That’s what sorry is meant to convey isn’t it?!

  • Shaun

    September 28th, 2011 at 5:44 AM

    I’ve been on both sides of SORRY-saying it and hearing it.And I think the problem why the sayer thinks this is because as a perpetrator,I would not really understand my mistake,the pain in it and the feelings.Where as for a victim,the things are very hard because I’m going through it right?!

    So this difference in perception of how damaging the mistake was-is the main reason why the sayer is left asking “Is it not enough?!”.

  • Celia

    September 28th, 2011 at 1:00 PM

    The word sorry alone is not enough because it has to be followed through with behavior that shows that you are willing to compromise and be better. We always think that a simple apaology is going to do the trick, but hurt for mst of us goes a whole lot deeper than what one little word is going to be able to fix. Yes tell your loved ones and those you have hurt or angered that you are sorry. But show them that you are sorry too, and I bet that will make an even bigger difference to them.

  • d. constantine

    September 28th, 2011 at 8:52 PM

    I hate it when the word sorry’s treated like a get out of jail free card and tossed around casually with not an ounce of genuine remorse behind it. Of course just saying sorry isn’t always going to be enough! The injured party’s entitled to ask questions about your affair and if you don’t like it, tough.

  • Angela Harris

    September 28th, 2011 at 8:57 PM

    @d.constantine-Exactly! If they hadn’t decided it was okay to mess around in the first place they wouldn’t have to face awkward questions now would they. All actions have consequences. All of them.

    Answering their questions is the least you can do to show you want to help your partner heal from the pain you inflicted upon them. Actions speak louder than words so do it.

  • Y.F.E

    September 28th, 2011 at 9:01 PM

    It’s very hard to lay a spouse’s old affair to rest if you don’t know anything about it. When my wife cheated on me I wanted to know everything: where they went, what triggered it, why she felt the need to look outside our marriage, how good the sex was, if he was better than I was, even down to what positions they did it in.

    I’m no voyeur despite what you may think. I asked because what I didn’t know, I could imagine a hundred times worse in my head.

    Her affair lasted a grand total of three weeks. It was fleeting and with no big romance involved, just sex. He gave her attention and made her feel attractive which I didn’t bother doing anymore. She felt it easier to give in to that than talk to me about her feelings. Go figure.

  • Ian M.

    September 30th, 2011 at 7:17 PM

    It’s flattering to have another person display a keen interest in you. When you’ve been married for years to a wife that let herself go once the kids were born, what else are you supposed to do? She reeled me in and once I was snagged, didn’t care anymore. Mine’s put on 30 pounds in the last ten years and that’s a turnoff. No guy would blame me for the occasional slip-up. If I’m offered sex on a plate by a woman, I’d be crazy to turn it down. It’s in my genes anyway.

  • Myra S.

    September 30th, 2011 at 8:55 PM

    @Ian M. -I beg to differ. You’d not be crazy to turn it down. You’d be a decent husband instead of a jerk, that’s what you’d be! I suppose you’ve kept yourself in peak physical condition over those ten years, huh? Not put any weight on or stopped dressing up nice for your wife instead of slobbing around in sweats have you? Still sit and chat with her like you used to when you were dating, do you? I doubt it. Look in the mirror man before you point fingers.

    And the “it’s in my genes argument” is a crock. Millions of other married men manage to keep their pants on.

  • chloetanner

    October 3rd, 2011 at 10:50 AM

    @IanM. –Oh boy, I can’t believe you said that. She’s the mother of your children! Talk about double standards. Your wife’s not the sole problem here, so stop blaming your lack of restraint on her weight gain. YOU need to change too. It takes two to make or break a relationship. It’s never 100% one person’s fault.

    Go help your wife with the children and show her some love and attention instead of finding some tramp to sleep with for a start. You’ve obviously not fussy either so quit before you give your wife some nasty disease.

  • Julie Holt, MA

    October 27th, 2011 at 1:28 PM

    Forgiveness is more for the person doing the forgiving than the person who wants to be forgiven. Forgiving is different than forgetting, though. Just because you have forgiven someone does not necessarily mean that you don’t still feel the pain. And for the person who wants to be forgiven and feels frustrated: I wonder what being forgiven means to them. Is there some other wish that they have of their partner?
    Working through infidelity in partnerships is a rich ground for deepening a person’s understanding of themselves, of their partner, and of the dynamics of the relationship.

  • Leesa o

    July 6th, 2012 at 5:52 AM

    What if you have hurt the person you love because you was ill with a bad head and had no Idea what you was doin. I dont mean cheatin..I meant if you said somethin you dont remember sayin or ruined a special day..Is sorry not good enough if you know you didnt mean to hurt them?? :(

  • Susannah

    September 10th, 2012 at 9:02 PM

    Great post :) I work with couples a lot where this is an issue.

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