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What It Takes to Give (and Receive) a Good Apology

Photo courtesy of Monroe Alvarez

What It Takes to Give (and Receive) a Good Apology

You mess up. You express remorse. You accept responsibility. You do something to rectify the mess-up. For most of us, the general pillars of apologizing are outlined around second grade. But apologies—the sincere and successful ones—are usually more nuanced than that. Even with the best intentions, we can miss our mark.

When therapist Jennifer Thomas brought the idea up to Gary Chapman (author of The 5 Love Languages—aka relationship gospel), it resonated. A little background: The idea of the five love languages is that how we express affection falls into certain communication styles: receiving gifts, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, and physical touch. These patterns of behavior are developed over time and determine what we understand as love. (When our love languages match those of our loved one, there’s a: boom! If there’s a mismatch, we feel unloved, insecure, rejected, you name it.)

The similarities between love and apology languages seemed uncanny to Chapman and Thomas. So they did what counselors do: They talked to people. In fact, they asked thousands of Americans two questions: When you apologize, what you typically say or do? And when someone is apologizing to you, what do you want them to say or do?

They collected their findings into When Sorry Isn’t Enough, a guide to using the five apology languages to resolve stubborn conflicts, issue effective apologies, and find forgiveness. The idea is that, maybe, finally, we’ll all be speaking the same language.

A Q&A with Gary Chapman

Q
What are the five languages of apology?
A

One or two apology languages will be required in what any individual considers to be a genuine apology. If you don’t speak that one or those two, then in the recipient’s mind, the apology is incomplete, and your sincerity is questionable. If you miss the types of apology language they respond to, they probably won’t accept your apology.

The five apology languages are:

1. Expressing regret. What you’re trying to say with this apology language is: “I feel bad that my behavior has hurt you, or that my behavior has hurt our relationship”—often using the words “I’m sorry.” But those words should never be spoken alone. If you simply say the word “sorry,” you’re not actually acknowledging that you know what you did wrong. Tell them what you’re sorry for:

  • “I’m sorry that I lost my temper and yelled at you.”
  • “I’m sorry that I came home an hour and a half late and we’ve missed the program. I know you wanted to go.”

And don’t ever end with the word “but.” If you say, “I’m sorry that I lost my temper and yelled at you, but if you had not done ___, then I would not have yelled,” now you’re no longer apologizing. Instead, you’re blaming the other person for your behavior.

2. Accepting responsibility. A second apology language is actually accepting responsibility for our behavior, often with the words:

  • “I was wrong.”
  • “I should not have done that.”
  • “I have no excuse for that.”
  • “I take full responsibility.”

And again, for some people, this is what they consider to be a sincere apology, and if you don’t acknowledge that what you did was wrong, then in their mind, you’re not sincere. You can say, “I’m sorry,” but they’re struggling with what you’re saying because they don’t sense that you’re really sincere.

3. Making restitution. A third apology language is offering to make restitution, perhaps by saying things like:

  • “How can I make this up to you?”
  • “I know I’ve hurt you deeply. I regret that, but let me make it up to you.”
  • “What can I do that would make this right between us?”

And for some people, again this is what they’re waiting for. If you don’t ever offer to make things right, then in their mind, the apology is lame, and they have a hard time forgiving you. But if they see that you are sincere enough to ask, “How can I make this right?” and you’re willing to do something, then they really sense your sincerity.

4. Genuinely repenting. Number four is expressing the desire to change. It’s saying to the other person:

  • “I don’t like what I did. I don’t want to do it again. Can we talk?”
  • “Can we put together a plan that will help me to stop doing this?”

This is communicating to the person not only that you feel badly about what you did but also that your desire is not to do it again. For some people, if you don’t express the desire to change your behavior, they find it difficult to forgive you, especially if you did the same thing last month, and the month before that, and now here you’re doing it again. And every time, you said, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” They’re thinking okay, so you’re sorry. What are you going to do about it? What they want is for you express some desire to change the behavior, and many times, if you do that, the two of you can talk and find a way so that you can break that habit.

5. Requesting forgiveness. Number five is actually requesting forgiveness:

  • “Will you forgive me?”
  • “I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me.”
  • “I value our relationship, I know I’ve hurt you, and I hope you will forgive me.”

I have to be honest, this one was not on my radar personally. I thought if I’m apologizing in any way, wouldn’t you know that I want to be forgiven? But we found for some people, this again is what they consider to be a sincere apology, and if you don’t actually request forgiveness or ask for forgiveness, in their mind, you haven’t apologized.

You can usually tell what types of apology people accept by paying attention to the ones they give.


Q
When you’re looking for an apology and you don’t get one, what can you do besides stew in it?
A

We can’t simply hold it in. If you hold it inside, the hurt and the anger will become bitterness and eventually hatred. Inside, you’re wishing that something bad will happen to them. I think when we’re willing to confront people, we’re far more likely to resolve the situation.

So with someone who’s close to you, you lovingly confront them—and I say lovingly because the natural thing is to confront them perhaps in a hard, harsh, condemning way, and we don’t get anywhere when we do that. But if you go in a loving way, saying, “I value our relationship, and what you did hurt me. I felt very angry—but maybe I’m misreading this. Can you help me?” They may well say, “Yeah, you’re right. You’re right. I blew it. I’m sorry.” And hopefully they’ll give you some kind of an apology.

Sometimes when we lovingly confront someone who’s hurt us, they will actually explain their actions or what they meant by what they said, and you’ll see the context and might recognize that you misunderstood. And then you can say, “I’m sorry. I took it the wrong way.” And the problem can be resolved from there.


Q
What about when someone doesn’t really feel that they have anything to apologize for?
A

A lot of men ask me this question. They say, “How can I tell her I was wrong when I don’t think I was wrong?” And here’s my answer: Don’t think that what you did has to be morally wrong for it to be wrong. If it has hurt the relationship, in that sense, it is wrong.

And I sometimes give this example in my own life: I had been gone three or four days for speaking events, and when I returned home, my wife had had one of our chairs reupholstered. It happened to be a chair that I sat in every morning to put my shoes on. So she walked in that next morning when I was sitting there, and she said, “Honey, how do you like the new cover?”

“Don’t get tied up with this idea of ‘It was not wrong.’ If it hurt the relationship, then in that sense, it is wrong.”

And without even thinking, I said, “Well, honey, I like it, but to be honest, I liked the old cover better.” And she broke into tears. She said, “I can’t believe you don’t like it. I spent two months going all over town trying to find the right material, and now you don’t like it.”

Now, what I said was not morally wrong. I didn’t break any rule. However, what I did was wrong in the sense that it hurt our relationship. My words hurt her deeply, and so I apologized. I said, “Honey, I am so sorry. That was stupid of me to respond like that. I didn’t think what I was even saying.” And I said, “I do like it, honey. I really do and I appreciate all the time you spent looking for it.”

Don’t get tied up with this idea of “It was not wrong.” If it hurt the relationship, then in that sense, it is wrong, and you can admit fault.


Q
For some people it’s difficult to apologize, and for some people it’s just as difficult to forgive. Why is forgiveness important?
A

Forgiveness is not a feeling. Forgiveness is a choice, and the choice is to remove the barrier between us. Whenever we hurt another person, we create an emotional barrier that doesn’t go away with the passing of time. It goes away when we are willing to apologize and when we choose to forgive.

Now I’d like to make this point: Forgiveness does not erase our memory of what happened. I’ve heard people say through the years, “If you haven’t forgotten, you haven’t forgiven.” And I don’t think that’s true. Everything that’s ever happened to us is recorded in the memory. So even if you apologize to me and even if I choose to forgive you, the memory will still come back to me of what you did.

“Forgiveness does not equal trust. What forgiveness does is open the door to the possibility that trust can be reborn.”

And also, forgiveness doesn’t destroy or erase all of the painful emotions. But if you allow those emotions to control your behavior, you will likely make things worse. When you have a painful memory, just remind yourself, yes, I was hurt, but they apologized, and I forgave them. And now I’m not going to allow the memory and the emotions to control my behavior. I’m going to do something loving so that we can rebuild our relationship, rather than bringing the problem out again and hitting them over the head with it.

And I do say to people, “Don’t pressure somebody to forgive you.” If they’ve been hurt deeply, it may take a few days, even after you’ve given a sincere apology, for them to wrestle with their own pain to come to the place where they can make a choice to forgive or not.


Q
Can you move on if an apology isn’t accepted?
A

If there is no forgiveness, the relationship does not go forward. The barrier is there between you, and it’s not going to go away. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean in a marriage that it’s the end of the relationship. It does mean that the relationship is fractured.

But if you’ve offended, reach out, and speak the other person’s love language on a regular basis and sprinkle in some of the other love languages, there is a possibility that in a few months, they will begin to warm up to you again because they’ll begin to see that you are making that effort. You are doing things you never did before. You are reaching out and communicating love to them in a way that’s very meaningful to them. And when they really begin to sense that you’re sincere, then they may well come back to forgive you for the past, and then the relationship can go forward.


Q
Do these apology languages hold the same power for more serious offenses?
A

Yes, I think when there’s been a deep rift, such as an affair or anything else that is really, really painful and strikes at the other person’s heart, if you really are sincere about apologizing and moving forward, use all five apology languages.

And that means that you are making the decision—let’s keep going with the example of an affair—to turn away from that affair. That’s one of the languages: I don’t want to keep doing this. So, if you’re willing to stop, come back, and acknowledge that what you have done is wrong and has hurt her or him deeply, in using all five apology languages you are communicating in the best possible way the sincerity of your apology.

“To the spouse who had an affair: If you want your partner to trust you again, then you have to be trustworthy.”

If your partner is willing to forgive you, then the relationship can go forward, even after a deep offense like that. Now I will throw this in (I run into this often in my office): Forgiving a partner who has had an affair does not restore trust. Many times, I’ve been in my office and a spouse who’s been cheated on will say, “I have forgiven him, but to be honest, I don’t trust him.” And I say, “Welcome to the human race.”

Forgiveness does not equal trust. What forgiveness does is open the door to the possibility that trust can be rebuilt.

So to the spouse who had an affair: If you want your partner to trust you again, then you have to be trustworthy. Here’s what I suggest you say: “My cell phone is yours any time you want to look at it. My computer is yours any time you want to look at it. If I tell you that I’m going over to George’s house to help him work on his car, if you want to come by there and make sure I’m there, it’s fine with me, honey. I’m through with deceit. I’ve hurt you enough. I don’t want to hurt you anymore.”

If you take that approach, then your partner will come to trust you, because you’re trustworthy. Trust takes time and effort to rebuild. It may take six months or nine months or more. Sometimes people are troubled after an apology, and even after they verbalize forgiveness, they need to build the trust back.


Q
How do you teach kids to give effective and sincere apologies?
A

I remember when my son was about six or seven, the two of us were in the kitchen, and he accidentally knocked a glass off the table. It hit the floor, and it broke. And I turned and looked at him, and he said, “It did it by itself.” And I said, “Derek, let’s say that a different way: ‘I accidentally knocked the glass off the table.’” And he said, “I accidentally knocked the glass off the table.”

Nothing wrong with knocking a glass off the table. We’re just trying to help the child accept responsibility for their actions.

The second and most important part is that the child hears you apologize. If you, for example, lose control, and you yell and scream at a child, you apologize to the child.

“Your model is the most important way to teach your children to apologize.”

Now if the children heard you yell at your spouse, it’s not enough just to apologize to your spouse in private later that night. You need to tell the kids, “You know, last night you heard me yell at your father. And last night I asked your dad to forgive me and he did. I want to apologize to you kids tonight because children should never have to hear their father and mother yell at each other. It’s not right to yell and scream at people, and I was wrong. I want to ask you kids if you will forgive me.”

Kids will forgive you. Your model is the most important way to teach your children to apologize.


Gary Chapman is a marriage and family counselor, a pastor, and the author of several books on communication in relationships, including When Sorry Isn’t Enough and The 5 Love Languages. Chapman holds a master’s in anthropology from Wake Forest University, as well as an MRE and a PhD from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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