The Art Giving and Receiving Apologies in Marriage

arguing couple saying sorry needing couples counseling thornton

If you’ve ever watched the movie Love Story, there is a famous line: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”  Dr. David Ludden says that nothing could be further from the truth, and when we’ve hurt someone we love, we absolutely need to apologize—sincerely and contritely. It’s the only way to start the healing process in a broken relationship. Love means having to say “I’m sorry”—and “I forgive you.” 

The art of giving an apology

Knowing how to give and receive apologies is an essential skill for everyone. The inability to apologize can lead to unresolved conflicts. This can create a divide between individuals. Resolving conflict fosters closeness and connection. Genuine and sincere apologies build resilient and secure relationships, whether family relationships, romantic relationships, friendships, or acquaintanceships.  

Apologies go beyond just saying the words, I’m sorry.  Using an argument-ender apology is easy but not helpful. “I’m sorry, ok?” “Fine, I’m sorry, can we stop arguing now?” These argument-ender apologies are not authentic, and they can convey to the other person a message of “let’s pretend it never happened” and do nothing to repair and restore your relationship. A sincere apology lets the other person know that they mean a lot to you and that you deeply regret that your actions caused them pain and strained your relationship. There are many different perspectives on the components of an effective apology.  In simple terms, just remember the three A’s.  Acknowledge the wrong, accept the consequences, and make amends.  

The art of receiving an apology

When someone hurts us deeply, we may think, “This person hurt me so much! How can I just let them off the hook?” Accepting someone’s apology and forgiving them isn’t about allowing that person to escape consequences; it’s primarily about freeing ourselves. Accepting someone’s apology means you recognize and accept that they regret and have sorrow for what they said or did to you, and they have found the courage to come and acknowledge it. Don’t just default and say, “It’s alright.” Accepting an apology and communicating how you feel and what you need is possible.  “I’m grateful for your apology; it means a lot to me. However, I’m still hurting. I’ll need some time to process this and observe changes in your behavior before I can consider moving forward with you.” 

When you do feel ready to forgive someone, it doesn’t mean forgetting what happened. Forgiving someone means choosing not to continue blaming the other person and moving away from resentment and toward freedom from dwelling on past hurt. It has been said by many people over the years that unforgiveness is like drinking poison yourself and waiting for the other person to die. Chaitanya Charan, a spiritual teacher who has been in the bhakti-yoga tradition for nearly 25 years, says this is about resentment: “A grudge may well be the heaviest thing to hold because, under its weight, our whole life gets crushed by negativity and misery. Just as putting aside weights offers physical relief, putting aside grudges offers emotional relief.” Forgiveness means letting go of all hope of a different past (you can’t change the past) and giving hope to a different future.  

The Don’ts of apology 

According to Dr. Stephen Stosney, who has worked for over 40 years treating people with anger and relationship problems, an inadequate apology can begin a chain of resentment that may eventually lead to emotional abuse. Apologies that include the following are not genuine; they convey a message of being appeasing, patronizing, or dismissive. 

  • Avoid elements of contingency or manipulation. A manipulative individual could use an apology to subtly shift blame onto the other person, suggesting that their feelings are unreasonable or overly sensitive and implying the offended person should apologize to them.  

“I’m sorry you’re upset, I didn’t think you would take it so personally.” 

“I’m sorry you can’t handle my honesty.” 

  • Avoid minimizing, excusing, or blaming. This mistake is fairly common in apologies and is a way of dodging taking responsibility and blaming someone else.  Do not use “but” or “if” or use half-hearted statements such as “I guess” or “maybe.” 

“I’m sorry, but you know I didn’t mean that.” 

“I probably shouldn’t have done that.” 

  • Don’t expect immediate forgiveness.  Giving and receiving forgiveness is essential for reconciliation in any relationship.  Remember, reconciliation simply means to restore a relationship to friendship or harmony.  It is better not to insist on forgiveness and to respect the response of the offended person, even if forgiveness is not given right away. Forgiveness should be on their timeline and focused on the healing and well-being of the hurt person.  Asking “Do you forgive me?” can make the person you hurt feel they need to answer right then, and may communicate the wrong message of you wanting to relieve your own guilt instead of caring about how they are doing.   


The Do’s of Apology 

When giving a genuine and sincere apology, it is essential to express genuine remorse for the impact of your actions on your loved one, acknowledging their feelings rather than your own. Emphasize the importance of your partner’s well-being and convey heartfelt apologies for any hurt caused or damage to your relationship. Offer to make amends and ask how you can repair the situation. If the issue has arisen repeatedly, plan how to prevent similar incidents in the future, demonstrating your commitment to preserving and nurturing your relationship. 

  • Admit your error. Acknowledge that something went wrong, and you know what you said or did that hurt the other person. Take responsibility for it. 

“I messed up” 

“I know my words hurt you”  

  • Acknowledge the harm. One reason someone may hesitate to accept an apology is the feeling that the person offering it doesn’t fully grasp the extent of the harm caused. Sympathize with the effect of your behavior on your loved one. 

“I’m sorry I lost my temper last night and took my frustrations out on you. I wish I had considered your feelings.”  

  • Empathy. Express your sorrow and sincere regret for causing your loved one pain or damaging your connection with them. If you don’t feel sorrow for the hurt caused then you can’t effectively apologize. 

“You are important to me, and I am sorry for hurting you. I regret the pain I caused you and that I pushed you away. “ 

  • Offer amends 

“Is there anything I can do now to begin rebuilding your trust?” 

  • Request forgiveness.  Again, asking for forgiveness is about restoring the relationship, and giving forgiveness requires patience to wait until the person is ready to offer forgiveness. Your motivation for asking the person you harmed for forgiveness must not be about moving on and “forgetting it ever happened” or making you feel less guilty, but rather, the motivation for requesting forgiveness ought to be full of compassion and driven by a desire and focus on the healing and well-being of the person you hurt and restoring your relationship. Reconciliation through forgiveness is the only way to move forward and sustain the love and warmth in the relationship. 

I should have never spoken that way to someone I love and respect; I hope that when you are ready, you will forgive me, and I will do my best to think before I speak in the future.” 

I want you to feel better and to forgive me when you feel comfortable doing so.” 

  • Commit to Change. Giving an apology requires a commitment to change. What would be the point of an apology if you just keep doing what you’ve been doing?  Although you’re the person you hurt may have forgiven you, the pain you caused will still be there.  Sincere apologies and acts of forgiveness do not erase the pain.  The pain of the offended person eases each time your actions prove that your apology was sincere and that you are working to change.  Actions must align consistently with words and intentions for trust to be gradually and completely restored. 





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