Apologize: What to do when you’ve blown it.

We have all heard the romantic tag line: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” The problem is that this is completely wrong. Actually, real love means always being ready to say you’re sorry – especially when you’ve really blown it. But how? Many people really struggle with the relational tool called apologizing. But this is one of the habits that we need to develop if we are going to have great relationships.

In marriage especially, you must be prepared to apologize even when you don’t think you are wrong. Remember that there are three “people” in your marriage: you – your spouse – your marriage. But even in friendships and family relationships, there will be times when you may be called upon to apologize for things you did. You may be called upon to apologize for not understanding the things that went on. You may even be called upon to apologize for actions you took that were not wrong but hurt the relationship.  

Just the other day on Dana’s and my anniversary, I had to apologize for something I didn’t know about. Why did I have to? Because not doing so would have ruined our whole night! My wife was trying to get home so we could leave for our anniversary dinner and had texted me that she would be home at 6:15. So, because I had a few extra minutes, I went to get a card, a balloon, flowers, and candy for her. I went to three different stores to get just the right items — I wanted to get it right. It was about 5:45 when my wife called me, very upset that I was not home and ready to go to dinner. I was confused and shocked, explaining that I had no idea she was at home and had gotten there so quickly. It turned out that she had sent two text messages to tell me that she was able to get away earlier. Well, I dashed home as fast as I could, apologizing for not being there but I had not gotten her texts. Just as I was apologizing, her texts vibrated into my phone. It helped that I could show her that I got the texts at 5:50, but what really helped was that I came with an apologizing spirit – one that was humble with the intent to heal the hurt caused by something not in my control. 

Since it was clear to my wife that I wanted to be with her just as much as she did, we went on with the evening and had a terrific time. It would not have helped if I would have come with an arrogant spirit proving to her I hadn’t messed up and she should not have been upset with me. But I apologized even though there was no way that I could have known because of the late texts.  

There are three types of apologies that we need to be comfortable making to move relationships forward.

The quick apology is one that shows the attitude of apologizing and a desire to have the relationship be mended. It is not a formal apology but the humbling of oneself, saying the words in a soft and gentle tone, “I am so sorry. I apologize for how this came off. I wish I had received your texts, and I am sorry that this evening is not getting off to the start we had both wanted.”  

The second kind of apology is one in which you need to apologize for something that you did that was not overwhelmingly bad. You still start with a gentle spirit and apologize for doing what you did or didn’t do. “I am sorry for stepping on your dress.”, “I apologize for accusing you when I didn’t have all the facts.”, “I am really sorry that we got our wires crossed and I forgot to put the trash out.”, “I apologize for my stupidity… for my laziness… for what I said at the party that insulted you and your friend.”, etc.You get the idea. If your spouse or friend or coworker is able to receive your apology and realize that you really meant it and did not intend to damage the relationship, then this simple but specific apology should be all that is necessary.  

The third type of apology is for serious offenses. In the case of marriage, it is important to realize that your spouse is the one who gets to say if the offense was serious or just something simple. All of us tend to minimize our mistakes and magnify the offenses and insults of others. When an offense is often repeated or it is deeply wounding, then it is a serious offense and can damage the relationship. How do you know they’re hurt? When the other person is stand-offish and moving away from you emotionally, mentally, or physically – this is a signal to employ the more detailed apology process. You may not have even known what you did, but it’s up to you to find out.

It starts like this. “I sense that I have hurt you. I can guess that I said something or did something that wounded you. It was not my intent but I didn’t mean to hurt you, so I would like to understand what I did so I don’t do it again. Would you share with me how I hurt you so I can change that? I want our relationship to be whole again.”

Then listen intently and repeat what is said to make sure that you heard it correctly. Do not move through this step quickly. If the other person says lots of things that have nothing to do with the particular event or issue that they started talking about, then that’s a good thing. They are helping you understand more hurts that you can fix and deal with. Don’t defend yourself or tell them that they did not understand what happened properly. It’s not about that. They need to share with you how they experienced it, which is the issue. If they misheard or didn’t see it accurately, there will be times later to clear it up, but now is the time to listen. Make sure that you are really paying attention and listening for their emotional reaction to what happened.  

Also, let them know that you are so sorry they were hurt. Apologizing that you hurt them and acknowledging the damage it caused to your relationship is a big deal! Admit that you were wrong. Use the word “wrong.” Let it settle in. They needed to hear you say that. Then, ask them if they could forgive you for that offense or hurt. If they say yes, then you have won a renewed relationship. If they say no then you have to ask why. Usually it is because they don’t believe you really understand how much that offense hurt them, and hopefully they will tell you a little more about it. Then apologize and ask for forgiveness again.  

Finally, if the offense is a repeated offense or very serious, you have to decide what to do so you won’t ever do it again. My recommendation is to set up a repentance plan with your spouse or friend. If we really have changed our mind about an offense, then we will be willing to change. If we really want to make sure that we don’t offend another person, then we are willing to attach consequences to repeated offenses in the future.

It’s up to you to determine how valuable the relationship is to you – if it’s important, you’ll work to change.

A quick reminder of what a good apology should look like:

This simple system for apologizing has saved many marriages and friendships from offenses piling up and destroying the love and joy that can flow between people. Be ready with an apology so that the relationship can go forward with two imperfect people.

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Dr. Gil is a catalyst for positive change both personally and organizationally. He excites, educates, and motivates audiences all over the world, through passion, humor, leadership, and wisdom. He is the Discipleship Pastor at Bayside Church in Roseville, CA. He has led seminars in China, Europe, Canada, Mexico, and all over the United States. He has taught at several Christian Universities and Seminaries (BIOLA University, William Jessup University, Western Seminary). He is on the faculty of Principles to Live By, an organization committed to teaching God’s principles in a life-giving way.

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