As a therapist, I witness a lot of apologies. As a husband and father, I make a lot of them. Sometimes, they land really well, and the person receiving the apology feels the sincerity. Sometimes they don’t. Here’s some of the common reasons apologies don’t go well.
1. The word “but.” While it is a small word, it can totally destroy an apology. If you say, “Honey, I’m sorry I yelled at you, but you had it coming,” then you might as well just say, “Honey, it’s your fault I yelled at you.”
What most people end up doing is changing the word to something equally invalidating, like “however.” Because that sounds better, right? Much of the time, “but” and “however” are just segues into us acting defensive. You have a couple of options. First, just stop right before you want to say “but” and change the comma to a period. And then don’t say anything else. “Honey, I’m sorry I yelled at you.” Doesn’t that sound better? Second, if you absolutely must say something in the same sentence as your apology, use”and” instead of “but.”
2. Explaining yourself at the wrong time. When people do this, they usually get stuck in a never ending loop. I apologize and explain myself for what feels like eternity, you think I am justifying what I did. You feel the need to explain my error with greater clarity, and I respond by explaining myself some more, and so on. It is natural to want to explain why you did what you did when you have hurt someone. It just doesn’t work very well when
you mix explaining yourself with apologizing. When you apologize and explain yourself in the same breath, it usually ends up sounding like justification for your behavior, which often makes it sound like you don’t think you actually need to apologize. You will have a chance to explain yourself, and you need one, especially when something really serious has happened. Again, just don’t mix it with your apology. Put it on the back burner until you can believably show that you are genuinely sorry.
3. Tone and body language. Your tone and body language are the doorway to your message. If your tone is defensive, you will likely come across as defensive. If you are distracted and not actually paying attention to someone, it will probably feel like you don’t mean it quite so much. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.
4. Blame. Instead of giving a good, heartfelt apology, we often point fingers. We essentially turn into a bunch of 6-year-olds. If Alex took Sam’s toy, and Sam punched Alex in the nose, does Sam still need to apologize? Yes he does. Obviously, so does Alex. You generally can’t exonerate yourself by saying “You started it.” You are responsible for your behavior, and if you try to weasel the blame onto another person instead of apologizing and taking responsibility, you are probably in for trouble.
5.Equating apologizing with the reinstatement of trust. This one is mostly for more long-term issues. In couples and families, it often shows up with infidelity, anger issues and addiction. There is often an expectation that once an apology has been accepted, it means that everything is OK. And for good reason. How often do we respond to an apology by saying, “It’s OK”? While apologizing is a necessary part of healing it takes more than a good apology to build back trust. Broken trust is rebuilt over time. When people get impatient because trust comes slowly, they sometimes try to speed up the process by apologizing harder, or apologizing more often.
It doesn’t usually work because pressuring someone into trusting you often makes them trust you less. Because apologies come to feel negative, it’s harder to get the healing warmth of a positive, sincere “I’m sorry.”
Andy Thompson is a marriage and family therapist in Marysville. For more go to www.washingtonfamilytherapy.com.