10 Ways to Screw Up an Apology

If you’ve decided you can’t apologize to the person you hurt because it would hurt him more, then go with God. If you’ve decided you can’t apologize to the person you hurt because it would hurt you more, then see you in Hell. But, if you’ve decided you will apologize to the person you hurt because it’s the right thing to do, read on. There are still mistakes you could make.

1 You apologize without confessing

You might think it would be impossible to make an apology without admitting wrongdoing, but people sure try. They can’t seem to resist saying, I’m sorry, without following it with the word, but, and all manner of justifications and rationalizations. You need to admit what you did wrong, acknowledge the harm you caused, and say what you’re going to do to make it right.

The problem comes when you go beyond the simple acknowledgement of the deed and attempt to explain why you did it. There’s a time and a place for that, just not now, in your apology. To your victim’s ears, explanation sounds like justification and excuses.

You may have had good reasons for doing what you did. The person you hurt may have harmed you in some way first before you harmed him, but to bring that up now obscures your own confession. It confuses things and makes it sound like you’re not taking responsibility for your part of the problem.

2 You’re vague

Saying, “I’m sorry I hurt you,” is an apology in the same way that a moped is transportation. It’s lame. A moped will get you where you’re going, but not as memorably as a Ferrari. If you want to make a memorable impact on your relationship, make your apology into a Ferrari.

List the bad things you’ve done and the particular ways they had an effect on her. The more concrete you can be, the better your apology. “I lied,” is better than, “I hurt you”; but, “I lied to you about what I was doing Tuesday night,” is better than, “I lied.”

If you’re too vague, it sounds like you haven’t done the work, you haven’t gotten down and scrubbed out all then corners, you tried to get by with passing a quick broom across it. There could even be confusion over what you’re confessing. He could think you’re confessing the lie you told on Friday night, when all you’re talking about was Tuesday.

3 You only apologize when you’re forced to

You get a couple of points if you apologize after she’s caught you in the act or when she confronts you. It’s like telling her you love her after she says, “You don’t tell me you love me anymore.” It’s the bare minimum. It’s far better to tell her you love her without being asked. A good apology comes unprompted, after full consideration.

If you are confronted or caught in the act, it’s necessary to acknowledge the transgression right there and then; but you’re not done yet. Sometime later, after full consideration, bring it up again on your own. This shows you’re taking it seriously.

4 You don’t show empathy

It’s important in your apology to acknowledge the effect your actions had on him. This is to show you are taking his perspective. “I lied to you about what I was doing Tuesday night and now you can’t trust me,” shows you’re putting yourself in his shoes.

You might find it hard to know just what the effects have been. That’s OK, you don’t have to be right; you just have to show that you’ve tried.

5 You ask for forgiveness

People screw up a perfectly good apology when they ask for forgiveness. Asking for forgiveness puts your victim on the spot. It requires her to do something at a time when she may be unprepared. Besides, she shouldn’t be forgiving you just yet. You’re not off the hook until you actually change.

Some victims will offer forgiveness without being asked. Sometimes this comes from a good place in them; sometimes they’re just uncomfortable with receiving the confession and want it over with; sometimes they think it’s what they’re supposed to do. At any rate, when that happens, you should respectfully and graciously decline the gift, or, rather, offer to pick it up later, after you’ve made amends.

This doesn’t mean that things have to go on being tense like they may have been. You don’t have to sleep on the couch. An apology is supposed to be a turning point. You’ve changed direction, but you’re not there yet. You have not yet arrived at reconciliation.

6 You don’t answer questions

Your apology is not over when you’ve delivered your statement of responsibility. You need to stay for questions. Answering questions ensures that you haven’t missed anything or been too vague. It also shows that you’re willing to stand under scrutiny.

Depending on the nature of your transgression, you may be tempted to say to him, “You don’t want to know.” This happens often in the confession of an affair when the cuckolded spouse thinks he wants details. You might very sincerely want to protect your partner from the knowledge of where and when and how you had sex with that other man. You know he’s not going to want to have that image in his head. There’s also the matter of what he’s going to do with that information. Once he knows who you’ve been sleeping with, is that person going to be safe?

At times like this, when you don’t believe your partner is asking the right questions, you, as a couple, need help. There’s no good way out of this jam by yourselves. If you fail to answer the questions as asked, no matter how ill considered, it’s going to look like you have something to hide. If you do answer them, you may have just hurt him more. You may not be able to complete your confession just then. This is the time to enlist someone objective, whom you both can trust. This person can help your partner frame his questions in such a way to help him move on.

Most, if not all, of the questions a partner has boil down to one thing, “Can I trust you?” At the time of the confession, the true answer, the answer you have to give if you are honest, is “no”. He can’t trust you. You have to earn your trust back by making amends.

7 You want the whole thing over and done with and don’t offer to make amends

The words, “I’m sorry,” is not a magical incantation that makes everything better, they have to be followed up with improvements. Nothing changes just because you admit you did something wrong. People apologize over and over about the same thing all the time without doing anything different.

You should commit to change. If you’ve done your work prior to the confession you will have identified how you can make amends. If you’ve lied, then telling the truth will make it right. If you broke a promise, then keep your promises or don’t make promises you can’t keep in the first place. If you ran up the credit card bill without her knowing, then pay it off before buying anything for yourself again, and so on.

Making an apology is just the start of the process of reconciliation with your partner, it’s not the ending. It ain’t over till it’s over.

8You confuse symbols with the real thing

Sometimes, when a contrite husband brings his wife flowers to apologize for something, she gets angry and throws them in the trash. That’s what happens when the symbol of the apology and the real thing get confused.

The real part of the apology is the acknowledgement of the deed, its effects, and the way to make amends. The flowers serve as a reminder of the commitment to change. When you’ve done the actual work and made a true apology, the flowers don’t get thrown in the trash. When you make the flowers do the work for you, it looks like you’re trying to buy her off.

9You don’t listen

After you’ve admitted wrongdoing, the person you hurt may have something to say. He may have questions, he might want to point out how your actions impacted him, you may have missed something, he might have something else in mind about how you can make amends, maybe he has something he needs to get off his chest. Who knows, he may have a confession of his own to make. After you’ve made your apology, listen.

Listening, by the way, involves attending to more than just the words he says. You also have to pay attention to the way he says them. Note his body language, emotion, and inflection; this is impossible to do if you’re confessing by mail or text.

After you listen, summarize what he said in your own words. This lets him know it’s sunk in so he doesn’t have to keep saying it. If you get it wrong when you summarize, he’ll let you know. This is important. Maybe you didn’t hear him right. This could be a case of chronic miscommunication. If he does correct you, then summarize that until you have heard it correctly. Try doing that by mail or text and the confession could take weeks.

10You don’t document

After you’ve acknowledged the misdeed, its effects, and the way to make amends, write it all down so no one forgets. Date it and make yourself a reminder to pull it out and go over later. Then you’ll see if you’ve followed through with making amends. If you have, that might be the time to ask forgiveness. If you haven’t, then you have another apology to make and a whole lot more work to do.

You may not feel you need to do all of this if the misdeed is minor, like if you ate the last donut one morning. But if you’re always eating the last donut or if there is a pervasive pattern of selfish and inconsiderate behavior and eating the last donut is only one example, then the full treatment is necessary.

The more pervasive the pattern of misbehavior, the harder it’s going to be to change. You’re going to need all the help you can get. Make your apology and do it right and you’ll be less likely to need to do it again.