PART III: The Ingredients of APOLOGY
Throughout my life, I’ve come to value and cherish the sheer diversity and richness of individuals—I would say that there is nothing more amazing and miraculous than our uniqueness, and the fact that we can share that individuality with others. Learning to appreciate the range of perspectives and experiences around me has been a long journey, one that I am still traveling, but I have found that by setting aside my assumptions and acknowledging the effects I have on others, it is possible to live a far richer life enjoying the gifts of those around us.
In Part One of this series, I covered the importance of acknowledging differences and expressing disagreements in greater detail and emphasized the recurring pattern of rupture→ repair → communion at the heart of sustainable relationships. In Part Two, I introduced the ingredient of validation, and I went through the step-by-step process of validating the feelings of our partners after experiencing a rupture.
Here, I’m going to introduce the final ingredient we need for our recipe: apology. Apology and validation are closely related, but there are important differences. Namely, while validation is about acknowledging and respecting someone else’s perspective and experience without judgment, apology is about taking responsibility for your own actions and effects on another person.
APOLOGY IS MORE THAN THE WORDS “I’M SORRY”
A meaningful apology involves much more than two simple words. In fact, there are ways of saying “I’m sorry” that can completely ruin a meaningful apology, even voiding the process of repair and communion.
Apology is fundamentally about your relationship with another person and acknowledging when you have been a source of pain in that relationship. Beyond that acknowledgment, a truly authentic apology is a commitment to listen and adjust the actions that cause pain.
Apologies are hard. It’s difficult to admit we’ve hurt someone. Usually, the pain is accidental, and we have an opportunity to learn when we’ve hurt someone, even though it can lead to feelings of shame, guilt, or fear. Engaging with painful experiences—especially those shared by the ones we care about—is always healthier than staying quiet and offers an opportunity to deepen the relationship.
APOLOGY IS NOT ABOUT THE APOLOGIZER
We often feel bad when we cause pain, we feel like a ‘bad person’, and our proactive egos can keep us from extending care to others. We become concerned with our social standing, worrying that we cannot right the wrong. This can compound the injury and cause further pain because we withhold validation and apology. We do not learn to avoid inflicting injury, accidental or otherwise.
It is important to examine yourself, your actions, and your feelings when committing to an apology, but that does not mean you should privilege these experiences when apologizing.
The apology is about the one who experienced pain, who felt hurt. Apologizing is about the emotions that they feel when they receive an apology.
WHAT DOES A GOOD APOLOGY SOUND LIKE?
We’ve already covered the first step to a good apology: validation. Taking the time to listen, understand, and affirm someone else’s experiences should be the starting point for any apology. However, it is just the starting point.
While the validation shows that you understand, the apology is where you accept responsibility for contributing to the injury or pain of the other person. As stated in part 2, this doesn’t mean agreeing with their interpretation of your actions or believing that you are a bad person. Validating their pain and their experience does not mean that they have the final say about what is “real” or “true”, or that they can define your intentions. Apology is about accepting that you left an impact on someone else because of your actions, regardless of your intent. A bad apology says “I’m sorry that you feel that way”, disconnecting from the validation and avoiding responsibility.
Apologizing immediately after validation is often best, but it is okay if you both need to take a moment to process your emotions and reflect on what you need to say. However, you don’t want to wait too long. Validation helps prepare you for apology, if you wait too long it may become harder to find the right moment to apologize, or the unhealed rupture may grow. Remember that this is a recipe: sometimes it’s okay to store the mixing bowl after you’ve prepared the first few steps, but if you wait too long the ingredients will spoil, and you’ll have to start from scratch. Strive to apologize the same day as you validate.
A meaningful apology, made after validating someone’s experiences, looks like this:
“I can see now that my actions of _____ caused you to feel _____, I’m sorry that I _______. Are you okay? And what can I do to make it better?”
And then listen.
PROCESSING AN APOLOGY CAN TAKE TIME
We may want to hear that we are forgiven right away. After all, when we express an authentic apology, we are hoping to heal wounds and move forward healthily. Hearing we are forgiven can be a return of validation, affirming our desires to progress.
But remember: apologizing is about the emotions of the injured party. They need to decide how they will react to the apology on their own time.
It is better to refrain from asking to be forgiven and to give them space to really listen to and think through the apology. That doesn’t mean you have to stop communicating with them. It is okay to ask for clarification. You can ask if you need to make your apology more specific, or if an issue was left unaddressed. There are also ways to ask for validation without demanding an immediate apology: “How’d I do? Do you feel better? Is there anything else you want me to acknowledge?” We are not mind-readers, so we shouldn’t be ashamed to ask questions and learn what the other person is thinking.
Learning to apologize is a life skill and one that I have continuously learned and relearned as I’ve developed new relationships. Remember, at the core of sustainable relationships is the recognition that we are all different—we share our uniqueness with one another, and we can never truly know everything about another person, and that’s beautiful! The world can often appear chaotic and indifferent to us, and it can be painful to realize we cannot control everything that happens to us. But when we realize that our differences do not limit our capacity to care for one another, communicate, and discover new ways of working together, this supposed incoherence becomes a meaningful pattern of learning and growing. These lessons are not only valuable for our romantic relationships but are a gift for our future, allowing us to repair mistakes and heal trauma. Validation and apology when building relationships give value to being human.
These blog posts and the guidelines they share are very dear to me. This is what I have learned while engaging with others, and I continue to learn through new experiences and new interactions. It can be difficult to write down these lessons when they are always going to be evolving, and I hope that is something that you, the reader, can take away from this series—the importance of learning from differences, new experiences, and mistakes. There is no final stage to this process, it is ongoing, and I hope that writing this out can be another learning experience: an opportunity to listen and encounter new unique perspectives.
While this is the final blog post in this series, that does not mean that this is the final word, or the conversation has to come to an end. Any worries, questions, debates, or feedback is welcome and valid. I cherish the opportunity to engage with new perspectives and keep addressing this living question of how we build sustainable relationships through our differences. I invite you to share your thoughts and experiences with me at [email protected].