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Do I Have to Apologize?



Do I have to apologize?

The simple response to that question is: Yes, you do have to apologize if you’ve made a relational transgression or hurt someone’s feelings, but making an apology is often anything but simple. An effective apology can resolve an issue and restore trust quickly, all the while deepening your connection. An ineffective apology – or none at all, can result in more hurt, a longer conflict, and a loss of connection. Give some thought to the last time that you felt wronged by someone that you’re close with. It might be hard to even remember what caused the hurt, but you likely do remember how you felt in that moment, and this was likely influenced by the behaviors of the person that made the misstep. Did that person show remorse and acknowledge your feelings, or was the offense downplayed or denied? Now try the shoe on the other foot; how did the other person feel when you did something that required an apology? How was your behavior then? Did you step up and acknowledge your wrongdoing, or did you try to slide it under the rug in hopes that it would be forgotten?


Why is it SO hard to apologize?

An apology really is a little science and a little art. Our brains are amazing structures that work hard to protect us from all possible threats – emotional and physical. When we feel wounded, we experience distress, which triggers a specific chemical to be released in our brain. Cortisol is the hormone that is activated to help us focus on keeping ourselves safe. When conflicts arise, we slip into autopilot and do what we learned to do to protect ourselves in our earlier years. Maybe we withdraw, or maybe we look for a fight, but regardless of our immediate response, we’re only thinking of ourselves in that moment. To further complicate what’s going on is our past experience of guilt and shame. We understand right from wrong, and when we inflict a wrong on someone we love, we tend to want to diminish our responsibility to preserve the image we have of ourselves. When we experience our loved one doing that same thing to us, it makes us feel unheard and unloved, and when we feel those things, we are reminded of other times in our lives when we did not feel safe or connected.


That’s the science, and it’s helpful to know that relationships can be messy, just like art. Artistic endeavors require truth, vulnerability, and emotional risk. For an apology to be effective, it must begin with sincerity, incorporate responsibility, and involve a little suffering.


Is there an easy way to say I’m sorry?

As humans, we often make things more difficult than they need to be. Apologies can really be as easy as 1…2…3

1. Acknowledge exactly what you did wrong and sincerely apologize. For example, “I was wrong not to call you and tell you that I’d be an hour late getting home tonight. I’m sorry I did that.”

2. Speak to the impact that your misstep had on the other person, and on your relationship. For example, “I realize that by not calling you I left you in the lurch about dinner and that made you feel unimportant and forgotten about. That’s not how I want you to feel.”

3. Make a commitment to not repeat this behavior by offering a plan. For example, “Next time when I realize that I’m running late, I’ll call you right away and let you know my ETA, so that you can plan accordingly.”


An apology that is heartfelt and empathetic has the power to quickly disarm conflict and reinstate connectivity. In therapy couples can learn to create building blocks, like this, that make for a strong foundation, so that their relationship can withstand the difficulties that will no doubt come their way. Relationships are difficult, and therapy can help. Call or email me for a free consultation.


Katey Villalon, LMFT


Photo by Mark Tulin

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