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The Structure of an Apology

Did you ever notice how unsatisfying some apologies are? Like, “I’m sorry if you were offended,” or, “Sorry, I was just joking, I didn’t mean anything.” Because those are not actual apologies. Those are just pretend-polite ways of blowing people off.

Which is fine if that’s what you’re going for! On the other hand, if you are hoping that your apology will help to repair a ruptured relationship, you might consider what makes an apology effective. Sneak preview: It takes more than just lip service. According to research, the most effective elements of an apology are taking responsibility, an explanation (ideally representing the good intentions underlying the misdeed), and offering to repair the harm done. Effective apologies often entail some cost or sacrifice on the apologist’s part, because the perceived sincerity of the apology is key.

As a therapist, I’m often in the position of guiding clients in developing and implementing effective apologies. Here is the apology structure I teach:

1. I’m sorry
2. For doing what I did (including naming and taking accountability for the action, as well as acknowledging the harm done thereby),
3. My intention was/is (identifying any positive intentions that apply), and
4. Here’s what I have done, and/or will do, to ensure that I do not repeat that behavior.

“Peter” had been caught texting an ex, even though he had promised his spouse that he would not do this. Trust was broken, and the marriage was in jeopardy. Peter acknowledged that he was in the wrong, that he did not seem to have control over his behavior, and that he wanted to do better. He promised to go to therapy to explore and try to correct the problem.

Peter’s spouse did not have much patience left, which is why I met Peter: because he chose to do intensive therapy (many hours per day), to achieve the results more quickly. In therapy he was able to identify a set of childhood experiences that had caused him to feel insecure. He recognized that his strategy of always trying to have a second-option romance in line was a way to manage his insecurity. He was able to work through and heal from those childhood experiences, which lessened his sense of insecurity. He then rehearsed effective strategies for managing anticipated challenging situations (e.g., when the ex would reach out to him), until he was confident that he would be able to keep his promise to his spouse.

A month later he e-mailed to let me know that he had explained to his spouse what he had worked on in treatment, that he had blocked communication with the ex, and that the marriage was back on track.

With this type of apology, the wounded party is likely to feel respected, understood, and cared for. And they will have reason to believe that you won’t do it again. This facilitates repair and rebuilding of trust. Of course, you have to follow up by doing what you said you’d do!