The Apology Hack that Gets Better Results than “I’m sorry”

how to apologizeWhich of these apologies sounds more powerful coming from your man?

“I’m sorry your feelings got hurt.”

“I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.”

Have you ever gotten an apology that didn’t feel like an apology at all?

It didn’t really make you feel better, did it?

Apologies with qualifiers don’t work. Okay, so they kind of work. At bare minimum, they demonstrate an attempt to mend things. But they also come off sounding insincere. It’s a missed opportunity for healing.

An apology that seems to be focused on letting yourself off the hook just doesn’t have much impact. In contrast, an apology that focuses on acknowledging another person’s pain can be profoundly healing.

Men and women talk about their emotional wounds differently in close relationships. Ask a man why he is frustrated and he is likely to say he was “blown off” or “disrespected.”

In contrast, women tend to talk about “feeling hurt” by a partner’s actions. Sadly, the language we use to express our feelings sets us up for apologies that only go halfway.

Consider this hypothetical: You’re on your way to a party. He’s certain he knows the way, but he ends up getting lost. You’re not overly worried about getting there on time–it’s a party. No one’s going to be on time. So, to lighten the mood, you make a joke about his lack of navigational skills.

He clenches the steering wheel. He’s wondering why you would kick him while he’s down. He feels disrespected.

But you didn’t mean to disrespect him! You were only making a joke. So you say, “I’m sorry you felt disrespected. I was only kidding.”

That sounds like a good apology, right? But there’s a problem. Instead of hearing what you said, he’ll hear something totally different. Something along the lines of, “I didn’t do anything wrong, but I’ll jump through the hoop of an apology if it will help you to feel better. (Even though I really shouldn’t have to. Because I didn’t do anything wrong.)”

Telling him you’re sorry he felt disrespected doesn’t work because it does nothing to address his emotional pain. Instead of validating how he feels, he’s likely to think you’re doing the opposite. In trying to make the distinction that you didn’t mean to hurt him, you run the risk of making things worse.

So, what’s a girl to do?

Say you’re sorry the way he wants to hear it. The way he needs to hear it. Simply say, “I’m sorry I disrespected you.”

Wait a minute! Hold on. That makes it sound like you’re to blame!

You’re right. It does. But that’s not the point. The goal is to remove the obstacle that’s holding the two of you apart. If he needs to hear an apology that matches his perspective in order to let go of his emotional pain, isn’t that what really matters?

A lot of women worry the guy will take advantage if they say they’re sorry for something they never intended to do. However, the truth is that rarely happens. Even if he seems angry, underneath his rage he’s really just hurting.

When you address his emotions by offering a no-strings-attached apology, you’re freeing him from that pain. That paves the way for the two of you to reconnect.

What’s more, when things have calmed down, you can always clarify. It’s totally okay to tell him you never meant to disrespect him. He’ll even appreciate hearing it, so long as you’ve already apologized.

The emotional healing has to happen first.

It’s a tall order. I won’t deny that. When you feel 100% certain you didn’t do anything wrong, it’s hard to offer a simple apology. Even if you understand how much more powerful that kind of apology is, some part of you will want to choose words that clearly communicate you didn’t do anything wrong.

Avoid the temptation.

how to apologizeInstead, remember what’s truly important to you. The man you care about is hurting. It’s not about whether or not you meant to hurt him. At that moment, it’s all about doing what you can to help him move past his pain.

Embrace the power of a simple, no-strings-attached apology. It can spare you hours of unnecessary tension.

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46 thoughts on “The Apology Hack that Gets Better Results than “I’m sorry”

  1. Lia said:

    Thanks everyone for wonderful ideas.
    What about the quote from Erich Segal, in Love Story:
    …”In love you never say ” I’m sorry!”…?
    If there is love, it should’t be any reasons to bad behaviior and to apologize, isn’t it? And if there is bad behavior, maybe there is no love and the two shouldn’t be together anyway.

  2. karena said:

    I understand what you’re saying, emotional healing is important, but (1) if you didn’t do anything wrong, you shouldn’t have to apologize for your actions; more to the point, you should never apologize for doing something you didn’t do, and (2) what ever happened to people being responsible for their own feelings; no one “makes us” feel anything, we do that on our own, rightly or wrongly.

    Now if a woman does actually say or do something disrespectful, she absolutely should apologize. But if a man feels disrespected, and no disrespectful words/actions were made (or intended), she should only apologize that her actions produced the response and find out why that is so, so it doesn’t happen again. And vice versa for women who react from a bad place. We’re talking about adults, here, not young children. We learn each other’s triggers this way, so we can avoid them, and hopefully become closer in the process, no?

    • James Bauer said:

      I think your perspective is correct, Karena, and it is the perspective I started with. Experience has taught me that we still react as if other people are responsible for our feelings (even though we should not react that way).

    • Diane said:

      Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy? You can’t have both, bc being right means forcing your partner to be wrong and there is no happiness from that.

      The kind of apologizing that James is talking about is just about validating how the person feels, and showing that he matters to you. If you unintentionally dropped something and it landed on your partner’s foot, are you not going to show any concern for the injury just because you didn’t do it on purpose? You can say sorry and show love to your partner, while still expressing that it wasn’t your intention. Example: “Baby I’m sorry I hurt you. I didn’t mean to, I was trying to make a joke, but now I can see how it must have sounded disrespectful to you. I’ll try to come up with more respectful jokes next time.”

      This is the way I treat my man, and it’s the way he treats me. I highly recommend trying it. It feels great for both of us.

  3. Annelie said:

    I really enjoyed all your articles James but one thing I have realised is this: men ARE too complicated and too sensitive in relationships. Little boys can take and handle (not feeling quickly crashed or experiencing emotional “pain or hurt (that Men saw as disrespect) far better than ADULT men. Adult men are like “crying sulking willies”. Much too sensitive for their own EGOS. I agree with Jennifer above. Women will not even be bothered if a man is commenting on her ” lack of navigational skills”. Will laugh it off. But with men you as a woman must always “walking and speaking on egg shells” because of their little sensitive egos. Must say i saw this attitude more with European and American men. Sorry to say. I grew up with three older brothers and until today they are not like this and even my husband. Thank God for that..

  4. Jess said:

    That’s: I have great respect for YOU.

  5. Jess said:

    Wow. Thanks for the feedback; you made my day. Your blogs consistently enlighten and entertain. I have great respect for your.

  6. Jess said:

    Is there a third option here? How about: “I am so sorry I disrespected you. I would never intentionally be disrespectful.”

    • James Bauer said:

      I have to say, that might be even better. Thanks for sharing that, Jess.

      • Natasha said:

        I have to say this doesn’t work.

        I was raised to not only say sorry, but to explain WHY I was sorry. I was told by the boyfriend that all he wants is “I’m sorry”. Nothing after that. They’re “qualifiers”. While I think this is bullcrap thinking to be honest, its what he wants.

        I get really annoyed with it. If you don’t understand my motivation behind what I did or why I did it — aren’t I just going to wind up upsetting you again, or can you possibly work with me to find a way to alter the situation or how you perceive it in the future by having a little bit more of an understanding behind the “why” it occurred in the first place?

        I agree that the male ego is far too sensitive. They can joke about you in front of their friends, or yours and if you get upset — you’re being too sensitive or a being “such a girl”. But if you do the same to him “its disrespectful and you should apologize”. *sigh* It really is frustrating to deal with.

      • James Bauer said:

        Hey Natasha. I agree, he’s being way to sensitive. So sensitive, in fact, that he is trying to avoid his own emotions… the emotions that arise when you try to talk something out with him like adults.

        Still, you might try this method as described in the article even if he says he doesn’t want anything to come after “I’m sorry,” because in this case, what comes after is nothing but ownership (taking ownership for how you annoyed or hurt him). It’s actually more of a “real” apology rather than an apology with qualifiers.

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