Soyou messed up. You made a mistake. Inadvertently, you ended up hurting the person you love.
Slip-ups are human. What’s done is done. Now, you’ve got a choice about how to act next.
What’s the best way to apologize, and show your loved one you’re genuinely sorry?
The words “I’m sorry” aren’t always enough
When one individual feels wronged by another, it isn’t just the words “I’m sorry” they need to hear, says Beverly Engel, licensed marriage and family therapist and author of The Power of Apology.
She writes that apologies need to be meaningfulin order to be effective. They have to demonstrate that the wrongdoer takes responsibility for his or her actions, and feels remorse.
Otherwise, forgiveness is very difficult.
As well as 5 “love languages”, there are 5 “apology languages”
One powerful way to construct meaningful, sincere apologies is to use the “apology languages” framework.
Read on to learn more about the various “apology languages”, and how you can utilize them to heal precious relationships.
Table of Contents1. What are the 5 "apology languages"?2. How to express regret3. How to accept responsibility4. How to make restitution5. How to genuinely repent6. How to request forgiveness7. Identifying your own and others' preferred "apology languages"
1. What are the 5 “apology languages”?
When you communicate in someone’s preferred “apology language”, you make it easier for them to genuinely forgive you.
Chapman argues there are 5 fundamental aspects of an apology. He calls these the “5 apology languages”.
Namely, they are:
- Expressing regret
- Accepting responsibility (admitting you were wrong)
- Making restitution (putting things right, or repaying the hurt person symbolically)
- Genuinely repenting (striving not to repeat your mistake)
- Requesting forgiveness
According to Chapman and his co-author Dr. Jennifer Thomas, all 5 “apology languages” are important.
However, based on their research, the authors believe that different people value different “apology languages”.
When you communicate in someone’s preferred “apology language”, you make it easier for them to genuinely forgive you.
This is because you demonstrate your remorse and sincerity in a way they personally understand and appreciate.
Therefore, applying the 5 “apology languages” as needed can help make your apologies more productive.
2. How to express regret
When you express true regret, you talk about how your actions affected the other person.
If you go down that route, and dismiss your loved one’s feelings in the process, “apologies themselves become offensive.”
In contrast, explains Chapman, when you express true regret, you say you’re “sorry”, but you don’t stop there. You explain, in detail, what you’re sorry for. In particular, you talk about how your actions affected the other person.
For this reason, you can think of “expressing regret” as “the emotional aspect of an apology.” It focuses on your loved one’s pain.
It’s a way of communicating: “I’m not just saying ‘sorry’ to get you off my back… I’m apologizing because I understand how much I have hurt you.”
To express regret, give details about what you’re apologizing for
Here’s an example of expressing regret.
Let’s say your husband specially planned a dinner date for you, but it slipped your mind and you forgot all about it. He ended up waiting for you for over an hour at the restaurant, before giving up and heading home.
If you want to express regret, it’s not enough to simply say: “Honey, I’m sorry I forgot about our dinner date.”
Instead, acknowledge how your actions affected your partner. You might make the following points:
- “I know you put a lot of thought into making a booking at a restaurant I like. You were looking forward to having some quality time with me.”
- “Your time is as valuable as mine, but you cleared your schedule for me and made sure you were punctual.”
- “You waited for me for over an hour, and you got really worried because I wasn’t answering my phone.”
- “You have every right to be frustrated and upset. I hurt you and wasted your time.”
- “I feel terrible about how carelessly I acted. You are so important to me, and I’m sorry I disappointed you by not turning up.”
By giving precise details, Chapman says you communicate empathy to the offended person.
In addition, it helps to mention “your own sense of guilt, shame and pain” concerning your hurtful behavior. As Lazare writes: to some extent, “a good apology has to make you suffer.”
While the other person (not you!) should be the focus of your apology, you essentially need to convey that:
- the relationship with the offended person matters to you
- you’re distressed that you upset or inconvenienced them, and
- you’re disappointed with yourself for acting as you did.
3. How to accept responsibility
There’s a big problem with cop-out statements like “I’m sorry you feel hurt” or “I apologize for whatever I might have done.”
According to John Kador, author of Effective Apology, accepting responsibility means:
- saying what you are apologizing for
- admitting to it clearly
- accepting your mistake without trying to minimize it, make excuses, or blame anyone else
In particular, psychotherapist Joseph Burgo advises against diluting your apology using digressive statements like: “I’m sorry for what I did, but…”
The presence of the word ‘but’ in your apology often indicates an attempt to transfer responsibility onto someone or something else.
Chapman provides some example statements of accepting responsibility, which you can tailor to your specific mistake:
“I know what I did was wrong. There’s no excuse for what I did.”
“The way I spoke to you was wrong. I wish I had thought before I acted. I made a big mistake.”
“I repeated a mistake that we’ve discussed before. I really messed up. I know that it was my fault.”
Why is it so hard to say “I was wrong”?
In On Apology, Lazare explains there’s a big problem with cop-out statements like “I’m sorry you feel hurt” or “I apologize for whatever I might have done.”
Far from conveying genuine remorse, such statements fail to acknowledge that an offense was even committed.
By suggesting that the offended person’s sensitivity is the problem, they compound the very pain they were intended to heal.
Yet why is it so hard for many of us to say the simple words: “I was wrong?”
“Often, our reluctance to admit wrongdoing is tied to our sense of self-worth,” explains Chapman.
He says the tendency to deny our faults often starts in childhood. When a child is repeatedly condemned or shamed for minor offenses, they make a subconscious emotional link between “wrong” behavior and low self-worth.
Such children often struggle to admit wrongdoing as an adult, because it hurts their self-esteem.
However, with conscious work, we can resist this harmful pattern and learn to accept full responsibility for our failures.
Accepting responsibility is an act of courage
The realization that you failed to live up to moral values can be a bitter pill to swallow.
Lazare says admitting this — even to ourselves — can be excruciating, because it involves taking a good hard look at ourselves, and realizing that “our own self-concept, our story about ourself, is flawed.”
To do so in spite of discomfort is an act of courage. For as Kador tells us:
What distinguishes the most moving apologies is the integrity the offenders demonstrate when they look deep into their hearts and reckon uncompromisingly with what they find there.
4. How to make restitution
Restitution, or symbolic repayment, is a way of reassuring the hurt person that we still value and care about them.
“Sometimes, words — even good ones — don’t feel quite sufficient to complete the process of repairing a relationship,” writes clinical psychologist Andrea Bonior. “Consider whether there’s a corrective action you need to make to help mitigate the damage of a situation you had a hand in.”
To determine the most appropriate corrective action, Chapman suggests asking the person you hurt one of the following questions:
“Is there anything I can do to make up for what I have done?”
“I know I have hurt you deeply, and I feel like I should do something to repay you for the hurt I’ve caused. Can you give me a suggestion?”
“I don’t feel right just saying: ‘I’m sorry.’ I want to make up for what I’ve done. What would you consider appropriate?”
Attempting to make amends in this way is an expression of love, says Chapman.
When we utter harsh words or perform hurtful actions, the affected person questions our love. Restitution, or symbolic repayment, is a way of reassuring that person that we still value and care about them.
Lazare describes these reparations as a way of communicating: “I am thoughtful about your needs, and I owe you.”
5. How to genuinely repent
Passionate expressions of remorse are empty if you don’t put sincere effort into ensuring there is no repeat performance.
In When Sorry isn’t Enough, Chapman recalls a conversation with a client who had been married nearly thirty years. This lady kept having “the same old” arguments with her husband.
She told Chapman:
What upsets me most is not the offending action — it’s the repetition of the offending action. He apologizes. He promises not to do it again. Then… he does it again — ‘it’ being as small as leaving the bathroom light on, or as annoying as needless crabbiness.
I don’t want apologies — I want him not to do the thing that bothers me!
“Obviously, it doesn’t help to apologize and then continue the very behavior you are apologizing for,” writes Harriet Lerner, clinical psychologist and author of Why Won’t You Apologize?. “Passionate expressions of remorse are empty if you don’t put sincere effort into ensuring there is no repeat performance.”
Elsewhere, Lazare reminds us that a genuine apology is “an act of commitment, because it consigns us to working at the relationship and at our own self-development.” If we don’t make a sincere effort to change, we risk invalidating our apologies as shallow, hollow, and ‘just talk.’
To communicate your intent to avoid repeating the same mistake, Chapman suggests supplementing your verbal apology with a practical plan of action.
For example, you might ask:
“How could I say that in a different way that would not come across as critical?”
“I know I’m not going to be perfect, but I really want to try to change this behavior. Would you be willing to remind me if I revert to my old patterns? Just say: ‘relapse.’ I think that will help me to stop and change my direction.”
6. How to request forgiveness
Requesting forgiveness indicates that you want to see your relationship restored.
The final “apology language” involves using phrases like: “please forgive me” and “do you forgive me?”
Lerner writes that in some close relationships, asking for forgiveness is an appreciated, valued ritual.
Chapman says that requesting forgiveness is worthwhile for a number of reasons.
Firstly, requesting forgiveness indicates that you want to see your relationship restored.
Moreover, it’s a vulnerable act; it demonstrates you’re “willing to put the future of the relationship in the hands of the offended person.”
A word of warning, however. Burgo believes that asking for forgiveness demands something of the person you hurt.
Essentially, you’re asking that they “exonerate you by putting an end to your feelings of guilt and shame.”
This can come across selfish and pushy. For this reason, it’s important not to pressure the other person to forgive you. Your apology is primarily about them, not you.
As Chapman reminds us:
“The person you have hurt must live with the physical or emotional consequences of your wrongdoing, and process them in order to forgive you. This is not a small thing you’re asking of him or her.”
Besides, “it takes a while for an apology to sink in,” says Burgo.
Expecting premature forgiveness is unwise, as “you have to leave the person room to get over feeling angry with you for the hurt.”
In any case, don’t assume you’re entitled to forgiveness. Be prepared for the possibility that “you may have to live with guilt and regret despite having apologized.”
Nonetheless, in some cases, Chapman tells us requesting forgiveness with humility can be the key that opens the door to reconciliation.
7. Identifying your own and others’ preferred “apology language”
Husbands and wives typically do not have the same “apology language”.
“Understanding what someone needs from your apology can make it much more effective,” writes Monica Gabriel-Marshall, Relationship Editor-in-Chief for Verily Magazine.
Interestingly, Thomas and Chapman’s research indicates that “husbands and wives typically do not have the same ‘apology language’.”
In fact, their data suggests that “three of every four couples must learn to speak an apology language different than the one they most want to hear!”
Now that you’ve read about the 5 “apology languages”, it’s helpful to determine which ones are particularly important to you and your partner.
In future, this will help both of you hone your apologies, ensuring they contain all the crucial elements the pair of you need to hear.
To determine your own primary “apology language”
Chapman suggests reflecting on the following questions:
- When someone hurts me, what do I expect the person to do or say before I can forgive them?
- When I apologize, which “apology language” do I use most often?
If you’re still unsure what your preferred your “apology language” is, there’s a quiz on Chapman’s website which might help you make a decision.
To determine someone else’s primary “apology language”
If you have hurt somebody, and want to apologize in the most meaningful possible way, Chapman advises asking them the following:
I know that I have hurt you. I value our relationship. So, what do I need to say or do in order for you to consider forgiving me?
It’s likely that their answer will indicate their primary “apology language”. In turn, you should make an apology which prioritizes that “language”.
“Even though apologizing is a powerful social skill, we give precious little thought to teaching our children how to apologize,” writes Lazare. “Most of us never learned very well ourselves.”
However, it’s not too late to learn.
Apologizing well can be difficult and humbling, but done right, an apology is a profound interaction that has the potential to restore a damaged relationship.
Remember: no-one is immune from the need to apologize. It takes guts to concede our own mistakes, but perhaps the words of the advice columnist Carolyn Hax will help:
The highest quality human beings earn that distinction not by being perfect, but by recognizing when they’ve acted like jerks and doing their best to clean up whatever messes they create.