One day, when my patient Brittany and David were meeting with me for a weekly session, the tension was so thick I could cut it with a knife.*

“What’s going on?” I asked.

Brittany started, “David said he’d be really safe when he went to the grocery store. He didn’t wear gloves, he didn’t put the bags on newspapers, and later he told me that he put some stuff on the counter without wiping it afterword. It was like COVID didn’t exist! It was really important to me, and he didn’t do it. To add insult to injury, he never apologized.”

“You told me to be extra careful,” David replied. “I went first thing in the morning and no one has touched anything since the day before, which is why I didn’t use gloves or newspapers. I don’t owe you an apology.”

I’ve seen this kind of scenario played out among couples in my professional practice and in my personal life among friends, family, and co-workers. Sometimes it’s been hard for me to apologize — so I’m not exempting myself from the need to do better.

Much has been written about forgiveness, but not much has been written about making apologies: When it’s offered for the wrong reason, why it’s hard to apologize, why some apologies are “non-apologies,” and how to make them properly.

When is an apology offered for the wrong reason?

We were taught to believe that we offer an apology because we did something wrong. But this simply is not the case.

If you walk in the aisle at a movie theater and you accidentally step on a stranger’s toes, what’s the first (and usually the only) thing you say? “I’m sorry.”

Mistakes happen, and because it’s dark and the aisles are close together, it’s bound to happen. So you didn’t intentionally do anything wrong, but you still apologized because you hurt the person.

And that’s exactly why we should apologize to the people we know. Any time two people are in a relationship — whether it’s a friend, spouse, or co-worker — it’s inevitable that you will occasionally hurt each other, regardless of how kind and well-intentioned you are. And apologies are meant to show others that you are sorry for hurting them.

Why is it hard to apologize?

When we’ve had a heated disagreement with someone, we can be much more reluctant to apologize, especially when we think we haven’t “done anything wrong.” Also, the emotions that come with an apology can be difficult to experience, and we often try to avoid them. So, refusing to apologize may be an attempt to manage your emotions.

Do you know that look that your dog gives you when you come home? When you just know that you’re going to walk into the next room to see ripped newspapers strewn all over the floor? Your dog’s head is hung, her tail is tucked, and her eyes say, “I’ve been a really bad dog, but I was bored and just playing around, so please don’t be mad at me!” If you’re a dog owner, you’ve probably seen this more than a few times.

Those feelings among humans (and maybe dogs too) are guilt and shame. A quick rule of thumb to distinguish between the two is that guilt is feeling bad for something you did, whereas shame is feeling bad for who you are.

Let’s say you texted your ex and your spouse is upset. That’s when you might become defensive by saying something like, “I wasn’t going to be rude by not replying.” Or you might make a counter-accusation by replying “That’s not fair. You’ve contacted your ex!”

You might not have done anything wrong, but you have hurt your spouse’s feelings, and he or she is owed an apology. So what is a true apology? To get at the answer, first consider non-apologies.

What is a non-apology?

A non-apology falls under four categories:

  1. The half-hearted and excuse laden apology: “I guess I’m sorry that you were upset when I forgot your birthday. I didn’t mean to miss it, but I’ve been really stressed.”
  2. The yes-but apology: “Sorry. I know I should have remembered to pick up the item you wanted at the store, but with the long line to get in and the one-way aisles and some people not wearing masks, I just forgot.”
  3. The counter-attack apology: “I’m sorry for telling you to calm down when you were upset. You don’t have any compunction about telling me to calm down, and I don’t say anything.”
  4. The “I’m sorry if”: “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings.” This kind of non-apology blunts the impact and directness of a true apology.

How do you make a proper apology?

In the wonderful book, How Can I Forgive You? The Courage to Forgive, the Freedom Not To, author Janis Abrahams Spring focuses primarily on forgiveness, but she says for a true and full apology, you need to:

  1. Take total responsibility for the hurt you’ve caused.
  2. Identify what you did to hurt the other person’s feelings.
  3. Make it about the other person and not about you.
  4. Be specific and sincere.

Let’s say that you have friends that you can kid around with by calling each other names, but your partner has a sensitivity to name-calling. One day, you’re joking around with your partner and a bad name slips out. She’s insulted.

A true apology goes like this: “I apologize for calling you a name. I should have realized that would insult you. I was being insensitive, and I won’t do it again.”

If you continue to do it and apologize each time you do (think about the people in your life who repeatedly apologize for being late), it renders the apology meaningless. Instead, you have to decide to change your behavior.

But will you never do it again? Hopefully not, but because you’re human, sometimes stuff happens and, if you’ve gone a long time without a slip, your partner will likely forgive you if you humbly apologize and re-double your efforts.

What is the impact of a true apology?

A true apology can help you to be a better person, heal the wound of the person you wronged, and repair the relationship. Regarding how it can help you, when you apologize, you might feel cleansed. When you have said or done something really hurtful, you can’t “take it back,” but by admitting it was stupid, insensitive, or unnecessary, you’ve put yourself out there and allowed yourself to make yourself vulnerable.

The cleansing can also lead to humility. As the saying goes, “to err is human.” It’s easy to become self-righteous, especially in a heated disagreement. By not apologizing, you’re missing out on an opportunity to gain some humility — a reminder that you’re a fallible human being.

The rest of the saying is, “To forgive divine.” But for the other person to fully forgive, what must come first is a sincere and humble apology. So, in regard to how it helps the person you’ve wronged, a true apology can lead to restoring trust and will go a long way to healing the wound you’ve inflicted. You are telling the other person, “You matter. Your feelings mater, and I care about you.”

David eventually realized that he hurt Brittany by ignoring her feelings. Because she has asthma, Brittany is terrified of catching the virus. David apologized, and he was more careful from then on.

Is there a person you’ve hurt yesterday or long ago that you’d like to apologize to? Think about how good it would feel to wrestle with your ego – that unyielding, stubborn, and self-righteous part of your psyche — and allow your best self to successfully emerge.

This in turn can lead to a better and deeper connection with the other person, which will naturally help the relationship. In this age of human disconnection, especially with the coronavirus, connection is the one thing we could all use more of right now.

*The names are fictitious and the story is an amalgam of patients.