Many people have complicated feelings about apologies, and not all of our thoughts and feelings about apologies line up. Some of us were forced to apologize as children when we hurt someone, and some of us apologized freely and felt immediately better after having done so. Some people feel shamed by apologizing while others feel ashamed until we have done so.
While a popular movie from decades ago declared that “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” many relationship experts warn that never apologizing in a relationship is a sure way to risk losing it.
We may have learned about the need for apologizing when we’ve hurt a friend—accidentally or otherwise—but do you know why apologizing is really important, and what function a good apology serves? Researchers and psychologists have pinpointed some important reasons why apologizing is necessary when social rules have been violated.
Some of the good things that come from a sincere apology:
Apologizing when you’ve broken a rule of social conduct—from cutting in line to breaking the law—re-establishes that you know what the “rules” are, and you agree that they should be upheld. This allows others to feel safe knowing you agree that hurtful behavior isn’t OK.
Apologies re-establish dignity for those you hurt. Letting the injured party know that you know it was your fault, not theirs, helps them feel better, and it helps them save face.
Apologizing helps repair relationships by getting people talking again, and makes them feel comfortable with each other again.
A sincere apology allows you to let people know you’re not proud of what you did, and won’t be repeating the behavior. That lets people know you’re the kind of person who is generally careful not to hurt others and puts the focus on your better virtues, rather than on your worst mistakes.
Benefits of Apologizing
Relationships can be great sources of stress relief, but conflict can cause considerable stress, which really takes a toll. Learn the art of apologizing effectively and you may find a significant reduction in the negative effects of conflict and relationship stress because apologies help us put the conflict behind us and move on more easily.
There are many benefits that come from forgiveness in terms of and happiness and stress relief as well. In these ways, being adept at apologizing when appropriate can bring the benefits that come with stronger relationships, reduced conflict, and forgiveness—it’s well worth the effort.
Why It Can Be Hard
For some people, an apology often feels like an admission that they are inadequate—that, rather than having made a mistake, there is something inherently wrong with them.
Others believe that offering the first apology after an argument is an admission of guilt and responsibility for the entirety of a conflict that involved wrongs on the part of both parties; they think an apology from them will allow the other person to take no responsibility for their own part in the conflict. Sometimes an apology seems to call added attention to a mistake that may have gone unnoticed.
However, in the right circumstances, a well-delivered, appropriately sincere apology will generally avoid all of these issues, and will merely serve to usher in a resolution, reaffirm shared values, and restore positive feelings. You just have to know when and how to deliver your apology.
When It’s a Good Idea
If something you’ve done has caused pain for another person, it’s a good idea to apologize, even if whatever you did was unintentional. This is because apologizing opens up the doors to communication, which allows you to reconnect with the person who was hurt.
It also allows you to express regret that they have been hurt, which lets them know you really care about their feelings. This can help them feel safer with you again.
Apologizing also allows you to discuss what the “rules” should be in the future, especially if a new one needs to be made, which is often the case when you didn’t hurt the other person intentionally.
Creating new rules for the relationship can help you be protected from getting hurt in the future as well. Basically, if you care about the other person and the relationship, and you can avoid offending behavior in the future, an apology is usually a good idea.
This doesn’t mean that you need to take responsibility for things that were not your fault. For example, you can express regret at unintentionally hurting someone’s feelings, but you don’t have to say you “should have known better” if you truly feel there is no way you could have known they would be hurt by your actions—this is where creating a new rule can help.
(For example, “I’m sorry I woke you! Now that I know you don’t want people to call you after 8 p.m., I will be careful not to do so.”)
Taking responsibility also means specifying what you did that you believe was wrong, but can entail gently mentioning what you believe was not wrong on your part.
In this way, you protect yourself from the feeling that if you are the first to apologize, you are taking responsibility for the whole conflict, or for the bulk of it.
It is also important to remember that an apology can include a simple statement such as “I am sorry that you felt that way.” An apology does not necessarily have to involve stating that you did something wrong. Instead, it may be an acknowledgment that you hurt another person.
Sometimes when you don’t see eye to eye with another individual, an apology will turn into another argument. (“I am sorry, but….”). You can avoid this kind of circular argument by just acknowledging someone else’s feelings and that you hurt them.
When It’s a Bad Idea
It is important to note that apologies that involve empty promises are a bad idea. One of the important functions of an apology is that it affords the opportunity to re-establish trust; resolving not to repeat the offending behavior—or to make whatever change is possible—is an important part of an apology.
If you promise to change but then don’t, the apology merely calls attention to the fact that you’ve done something even you agree is wrong, but refuse to change.
Don’t make promises you can’t keep, but do try to make reasonable promises to avoid hurting the person in the future, and the follow through on those promises. If the other person is expecting something unreasonable or impossible, perhaps you’re taking responsibility for more than you need to.
An insincere apology can often do more damage than no apology at all. When you are apologizing, it is important to include a few key ingredients so you can apologize sincerely. They should help you to maintain healthy, happy relationships with your friends, family and loved ones.