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What is an apology?

By Diana Weiss-Wisdom, Ph.D.

Dear Dr. Diana,

My wife says that because I apologize all the time, that it doesn’t mean anything. I do say, “I’m sorry” a lot for all kinds of things (“sorry you got stuck in traffic on the way to our house.” Or “sorry that you had a bad day.” Or sorry that the dog woke you up or that I upset you). So, because I say sorry so much, it doesn’t mean anything to her. That seems really harsh to me. In contrast, she almost never apologizes. She believes that the only apology that matters is action – doing something that shows that you’ve learned from your mistake or doing something that demonstrates the apology (like cleaning the house or buying a trinket). So should I try to stop apologizing unless I’ve made a really big mistake? I’d also like my wife to apologize when she does something wrong. When is it appropriate to apologize?

— Feeling frustrated and beat down

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Dear Frustrated Husband,

Let’s first address the issue of over apologizing. Then we’ll briefly tackle the lack of willingness to apologize.

The truth is that when people chronically over apologize, it can be annoying to other people. It can come across as fake, controlling, or insecure. Over apologizers often just want the people around them to be happy and comfortable so they are sorry for anyone who might be the least bit inconvenienced.

To your wife’s point, it can be irritating when someone over uses a word. I know someone who uses the word “wonderful” all the time – even with situations that by anybody’s standard are not wonderful. While her positivity is admirable and can be energizing to be around, the overuse of a word that denotes something extraordinary, can diminish the sentiment.

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It might help if you varied your choice of words and expression. Using the word sorry can be a bit vague anyway. You could say, “I feel badly that you got stuck in traffic.” Or “it’s too bad that the dog woke you up.” When you do something that you genuinely regret, you could say, “I was wrong when I did such and such. Next time I will do it differently.” Then when you want to apologize about something more significant, (even if you use the word “sorry” with your wife) it will have more impact.

In order for an apology to seem genuine and to be effective, the injured party must feel that you understand the effect that your action has had on them and that you feel remorseful. And then of course, unless corrective action follows an apology (i.e. you take pains to not repeat the previous behavior), it has less meaning. Having said that, there is a difference between trying to learn from our mistakes and trying to buy forgiveness. Offering an olive branch by doing chores or something that your partner might appreciate is thoughtful. The most effective apologies have several ingredients.

For an apology to be effective:

• You need to listen to the injured parties thoughts and feelings;

• Convey understanding of how your actions affected them;

• Feel and express genuine regret and your intention to not repeat the situation.

There are a number of reasons why some people may have difficulty apologizing. Here are a few:

1) They may not have learned to apologize in their families.

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2) They may not have been taught to take responsibility for their mistakes or short- comings.

3) They may have grown up believing that expressing feelings, especially vulnerability, shows weakness.

4) Insecure personalities can have an especially hard time admitting that they were wrong.

5) Sometimes people have deep-seated feelings of shame due to experiences in childhood and while they look confident and strong on the outside, they are actually quite fragile inside.

It can be hard to admit that you made a mistake. The problem is that when a person doesn’t ever apologize, it can seem like they don’t care about your feelings. This can of course drive a wedge in a relationship. We all want to feel that our partner has our best interest at heart. And that if we are hurting, they are there for us. This sometimes requires that one falls on one’s own sword and says ‘Mea culpa and I’m sorry.”

Diana Weiss-Wisdom, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Rancho Santa Fe, CA. (858) 259-0146 or drdiana@cottagelinic.net

Join us for our next, Keeping Love Alive: Marriage Retreat/Couples Workshop Jan. 12-14, 2012. Limited to 15 couples. Based on the best selling book by Sue Johnson, Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love


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