To whom do you owe an apology? Before you read on, take a moment. Say their name aloud.
Now, answer the question: why do you feel the need to apologize?
A strong, meaningful apology goes a long way in repairing major and minor rifts in any relationship. Intellectually, we know this. Apologizing is one of the first relationship skills we learn as young children. But it’s a skill that needs to grow with us. When we first learn to apologize, we often do it because we are told we need to—apologize to your brother for taking his toy. Say you’re sorry to your classmate for not including them in the game. The other child is told to reply I forgive you. There is a clear outcome of this dance: repair in the service of getting back to what matters—play.
This knowledge becomes less obvious as we get older, more layered with complexity. We forget how much we need play and connection—how much we love it—and how apologizing can lead us back to it. Instead, we cling to our position. We convince ourselves that apologizing means admitting defeat. Or that, no matter how much we apologize, we’ll never be forgiven. We know the way back to each other, to lightheartedness, to connection, to play. But it feels tremendously hard. It can feel shameful. And that shame can prevent us from reaching out. I don’t even know what to say so I’m not even going to try. And why am I the only one apologizing in this relationship?
“A good apology is when we take clear and direct responsibility without a hint of evasion, blaming, obfuscation, [or] excuse-making—and without bringing up the other person's crime sheet,” says Harriet Lerner, clinical psychologist and author of Why Won't You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts.
One way to interpret this is that a good apology puts the relationship first. It doesn’t find a way to justify what you did or to go tit for tat with the other person. Repair, in general, puts the good of the collective above the interests of the individual. Even when you want to scream, slam a door, bring up what they did, slip into feisty blaming, or not talk to them for the next three days, ask yourself: “if I do this now, what will this do to our connection? What does our relationship need?”
Some apologies swim in murky waters. Even if you don’t regret what you did (going out without your partner, not inviting a friend to your wedding, refusing to lend money to your brother), you can apologize for the impact it had on that person. However, be careful of the language you use. “I’m sorry if I made you feel” may sound appropriately apologetic but it puts the responsibility on the other person.
Redemption requires accountability. A good apology includes:
From this place, you can stand accountable without needing the other person to validate, redeem, or forgive you. You just do your part, for the good of the relationship.
There is power in apologizing first. It’s not only because there is power in vulnerability. It’s because there is something about owning, claiming, and taking responsibility that gives you a sense of agency. It’s not power “over” another; it’s power “to”—to clear the debris, to reorganize the pieces, to make things right. When you apologize, you choose to change the story, to move the plot forward. As the apologizer, you are the person who is saying “Enough. We may have made this mess together, but I own my part and I’m sorry to you for what I’ve done.”
Apologizing also helps us to realize how much impact we can have on another person. There is weight to our actions. If we have the power to hurt, we also have the power to take a step toward healing. And, when we apologize first, we open the door for the other person to meet us in that place of open communication. We lessen the shame for them. We acknowledge together that being on good, or at least neutral, terms is more important than winning.
While you have the power to say sorry, the other person has the freedom to forgive or not to forgive. Perhaps this is what makes it so hard. We know that once we make the first move, we’re no longer in control. Our vulnerability can be met with rejection.
A good scenario: you apologize and the other meets you there by saying thank you or I forgive you or by coming forward with their own self-awareness.
A less ideal scenario: you are on your knees with someone who seems to relish your self-flagellation. The sadist may want to humiliate you. More often, the person is just so hurt, they want you to join them in that feeling.
A worse scenario: The apology has never been made or accepted and the unfinished business follows us to the end of life, even traveling across generations. (There’s a reason why this is a central plot of countless books and films.)
So much has been said across history, culture, art, and religion about this power dynamic. Judaism, for instance, dictates that it is the apologizer's responsibility to stand accountable but, if after three times, the person who was aggrieved has not received the apology, the burden passes to them. A serious offense requires a serious apology, sometimes more than once, but there is a limit. Sometimes forgiveness takes time. Sometimes it doesn’t come at all.
Lerner believes that “I’m sorry” are the most important words in language. “We’re all connected. We all screw up. We’re all imperfect human beings. When they’re done right, apologies are very healing. But when apologies are absent or they go south, it will compromise or lead to the end of a relationship. Apologizing is central to everything we hold dear—to family, to marriage, to leadership, to parenting, to our ability to love ourselves and love other people.”
Throughout life, we have lots of opportunities to say “I’m sorry,” to others and to ourselves. With each one, we gain a deeper understanding of the power of apology—and how to do it right. One of the most healing aspects of repair comes when we see each other trying. Even if we’re not getting it exactly right, we’re getting a little better at it each time. The poet Rumi said “out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I'll meet you there.”