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What Makes for a Good Apology? The Secret to Effective Repairs

Did you know that apologizing or making an “effective repair” is one of the most important skills in a relationship?

It’s actually well-known across couple therapy models that making a mistake is not the culprit in divorce. It’s the lack of an effective repair.

As a couple and family therapist, I too have observed that family estrangements are also often caused by a lack of effective repairs.

What exactly is an effective repair? According to Stan Tatkin, Psy.D, creator of the PACT model:

“An effective repair is when the hurt partner says s/he feels better. The other partner’s intention and effort are not enough. The other partner has to learn what will effectively soothe his/her partner’s hurt.” 

Is there a research-based process for making repairs?

Yes! There are two that I know of:

1. Attachment Injury Repair Model  (for couples)

  • I have guided and supported many couples through the “Forgiving Injuries” conversation, which is also referred to as the AIRM (attachment injury repair model), an evidenced-based process in (EFT) Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy. (Blog coming soon about this process…)

2. Genuine Forgiveness Process (for all relationships)

  • Prior to learning the AIRM process, I used the “Genuine Forgiveness” process, which I found equally effective given BOTH family members demonstrate openness, willingness, and authenticity.
  • In Abrahms-Springs book, How can I forgive you? she explains in detail and down to earth language~ 6 Critical Tasks for Earning Forgiveness for the offender to complete, such as bear witness to the pain you caused, seek to understand your behavior, and work to earn back trust and 3 Critical Tasks for Granting Forgiveness for the hurt party to complete, such as all 10 steps of Acceptance- not alone, but with the offender’s help.

Why are apologies important?

Janis Abrahms-Spring, PhD explains three reasons:

1.) YOU will feel better about yourself! When you know you wronged someone, you’re going to feel crummy. And if you minimize or dismiss it, you’ll seal in your guilt.

2.) Your apology conveys respect for the person you harmed.

3.) Your apology may help to reconnect the two of you. Your apology disarms your loved one and helps them feel more kindly toward you. Also, by you clearing your conscience, you are more likely to allow yourself to reattach to your loved one. Apology expert, Beverly Engel points out, “Once we have apologized, we feel free to be vulnerable and intimate.” 

In this blog, I will:

  • List 8 apology guidelines by forgiveness (& affair repair) expert, Janis Abrahms-Spring, Ph.D from her book, How can I forgive you? The courage to forgive, the freedom not to
  • Share a personal story about a transformative healing repair
  • Discuss the MILLION DOLLAR QUESTION- What should I do if I don’t receive an apology or only a bad apology? and options for both protecting yourself (setting boundaries) and staying connected

Apology Guidelines, according to Dr. Abrahms-Spring:

1. Take responsibility for the damage you caused. Ex. “I wronged you by _______ and for that I’m sorry.”

2. Make your apology personal. Ex. “I wronged you. I violated you.” (not just my own standard of conduct) Express how upset you are that you hurt the other person. (Do not focus on your own pain.)

If you are willing to step inside the shoes of the person you hurt, that person might open up to forgiving you.

3. Make your apology specific. Capture exactly what you’re sorry for. Be BOLD, concrete, and express precisely how you hurt him/her. Only then will s/he believe that you understand the harm you caused & will never cross that line again. Ex. Don’t just say, “I’m sorry I had an affair” or “I strayed.” Instead express how your affair devastated your spouse and what exactly you’re sorry for. (add some detail about the impact)

4. Make your apology deep. If you want to be forgiven, you have to cough up the whole wretched truth of what you did. Don’t be content with easy admissions; keep scraping away to uncover deeper, darker truths. “If you’re feeling uncomfortable, you’re probably doing something right” (Albert Ellis)

You may need to write & rewrite your apology to go deeper from the protective superficial 1st draft.

5. Make your apology heartfelt. Your apology is likely to fall on deaf ears if your heart isn’t in the right place. Anyone can be trained to utter polished words of remorse. For you to be genuinely forgiven, your remorse must be real, profound, enduring; a transformation of the heart.

6. Make your apology clean. The most effective apologies are pure, straightforward, and uncomplicated, with no buts. Qualified apologies tend to backfire. When you try to pass off your misconduct as a mistake, an insignificant event, an understandable reaction to her/his misbehavior, the person you hurt is likely to feel even MORE battered and enraged than before.

How about situations when BOTH partners (or family members) feel hurt?

  • When you acknowledge blame, the hurt person is more likely to acknowledge their part too.

  • Instead of couples trading accusations, “I did _____ because you ______!”, take turns acknowledging blame. Put your recriminations aside and take turns making full apologies and giving them a chance to sink in. Exercise~ Both partners can write each other a letter solely acknowledging their blame and regret for hurting one another. This engenders TRUST.

  • You can’t accuse someone & apologize to him/her at the same time. One gesture cancels out the other.

7. Apologize repeatedlyif you hope to reconcile more serious injuries. I compare it to saying, “I love you”.

8. Don’t wait for the perfect time to apologize. Make time. And don’t wait until you’ve found the magic words; you can revise or add to them later. Partners appreciate your initial effort & improvement later.

A personal story~ A transformative, healing repair

My husband and I were participating in a “Hold Me Tight” couples retreat. During our “working” lunch break, we were instructed to have “Conversation #5”, which is called “Forgiving Injuries”.

During this conversation, both partners take turns telling each other of a time when they felt emotionally wounded by their partner. The listener acknowledges the wounded partner’s pain and his/her part in it. The research shows that until the speaker sees that her/his pain has been truly recognized, they will not be able to let it go. 

When it was my turn to share of a time I felt wounded, my husband could not have provided a more sincere apology that showed his regret and remorse. It was not just in his words, but also the tone of his voice and the look on his face. He completely stepped inside my shoes and wept. It was an extraordinary breakthrough for our relationship. My previous attempts (prior to the retreat) for him to understand my hurt were ineffective. At that moment during the retreat, he fully had my heart and my back. 

When family members have these profound moments of empathy and compassion, trust can be restored and their emotional bond can grow stronger than ever.

What Blocks Apologies?

When my son was just 4 years old, his preschool teacher Ms. Nandi engaged his class in a discussion about respect. As I was putting my son’s items in his cubby, I witnessed amazing words of wisdom from those big souls on little legs. One comment was from my son,

“Weespect means to say I’m sowee” (Respect means to say I’m sorry).

I beamed with pride! Later I wondered…

“How is it that such young children are able to understand and practice these relationship repair skills when many adults cannot?”

  • Some adults never heard their parents apologize to each other or them.
  • Some adults had parents who shamed anyone who was less than perfect. Mistakes were not allowed, criticism was rampant, and forgiveness absent. Therefore, apologizing to someone would evoke tremendous shame. Thus, it feels better to be defensive, even if defensiveness further erodes relationships.
  • Some adults had parents who modeled apologies and forgiveness, but struggle with these relationship skills for other reasons.

The Million Dollar Question~

What can you do when you receive NO apology or a bad apology for a significant hurt?

We all have experienced this and know what this FEELS like even when we can’t put our finger on exactly what was missing. Abrahms-Spring has a list of these in her book and describes a BAD apology as “when you deny, discount, or dismiss the injury” and don’t take any responsibility for the hurt. Ex. “I’m sorry your feelings are hurt, but I did ________ because you __________.”

Ideally, your loved one is willing to participate in couples or family therapy, a couples retreat or courageously vulnerable conversations with just you to help you both move beyond this impasse or unrelenting hurt.

But, what if your loved one REFUSES to talk about the emotional wound any further?! When choosing one of the options below, listen to your gut and heart. 

Here are a few options to consider when you don’t receive an apology or only an ineffective one & your loved one has put up a wall:

1.) Forgive your loved one completely for being an imperfect human being, let it go and resume full connection.

  • Most people aren’t able to do this on their own. Even my son at 4 years old knew that people need to apologize for hurting others (even if it’s unintentional) and that our feelings need to be acknowledged in a compassionate way, especially in our closest relationships.
  • Some people are able to draw on their individual therapy sessions, religious beliefs, the 12 step process, therapy, and other spiritual or personal growth teachings to be able to genuinely forgive others. These practices are LIBERATING and are worth considering.
  • In Abrahms-Spring’s book, How can I forgive you? she outlines an “Acceptance” process, which is just as personally healing as the “Genuine Forgiveness” process, even if it doesn’t fully restore the relationship (unless the person who harmed you is willing to participate in the process).

2.)  Forgive your loved one, resume partial connection AND maintain a healthy boundary for your and their sake- until they’re willing to do an effective repair.

If someone hurt our children, ex. a babysitter, we would immediately set a boundary with them. No questions asked and no guilt, shame or blame by others.

  • IT’S HEALTHY TO PROTECT YOURSELF AS WELL! from any type of abuse- sexual, physical, verbal and emotional. Research shows it is emotional abuse that has the most severe consequences. 
  • It also makes perfect sense that you still want to stay CONNECTED with your family members since you share the same roots or if they’re your in-laws, you value family togetherness.
  • In one of my family relationships, I did not receive an apology for a hurt that I expressed in a detailed letter. However, I did witness behavior change! I was able to get closer to that relative and yet I still maintain boundaries. Trust can only be fully restored with an effective repair.
  • If you wish to continue your relationship with a loved one who has hurt you and NOT effectively repaired with you, there are countless ways you can still maintain connection and set boundaries. Just a few ideas are: 1. meet this person at a public place, 2. meet this person in a group setting, 3. meet this person for short periods of time. Check out my blog, “Guidelines for a Family Visit”.

Spiritual teacher and author Pema Chodron actually says:

Buddha would like boundaries. It is MORE compassionate to set a boundary with someone who is continuing to be abusive because it’s not compassionate to them or others to allow them to continue to be abusive.

3.) Forgive your loved one, sever ties, and love them from a distance- until they’re willing to do an effective repair.

  • This might sound like a surprising option coming from a couples and family therapist! It can help to remember your natural response if someone hurt your child (or pet or partner)- you would PROTECT them and set the firmest boundary possible! You have the right to do the same for yourself. And it’s healthy MODELING for your children. 
  • If a family member or anyone hurt you, refuses to express remorse and an apology, and EVEN threatens to do it again, that’s a clear sign, it’s time to sever ties- whether this is temporary or permanent is up to you.

In closing~

Forgiveness (or Abrahms-Spring’s “acceptance process”) and love are for your benefit because carrying around resentments erodes our health. Forgiveness and love free us from anger and allow us to live our full and best lives. They also allow for the opportunity for reconciliation if your family member has a change of heart and decides to finally repair with you.

I hope you found some of the guidelines above helpful for you.

Last year I needed to apologize to a colleague for unintended hurt I caused her. I really appreciated having these practical, concrete ideas to follow, and they worked in healing my relationship with her. I feel tremendous gratitude for Dr. Abrahm-Springs research and writing since she shares with us extremely valuable relationship skills that are rarely taught or passed down even in the most loving families.

If you are struggling to repair or set a boundary with a loved one, I am here to support you and your loved one(s) in deciding the direction you wish to take.

Contact Lana Isaacson, LCSW, CAC III today at 720.432.5262, [email protected] or schedule your session or free consultation here.