Greg had an intense meeting with his boss just before he left the office, and the conversation kept running through his head the whole drive home. As he walks in the door empty-handed, his wife Sara asks, “Didn’t you get the wine?” Then he remembers that guests are coming over tonight, and he was supposed to pick up a bottle.
“I’ll go back and get it,” Greg offers, but Sara isn’t placated. He’s already running late, and she really could use some help in the kitchen. Now he feels a need to defend himself. “Really, what’s the big deal?” he demands. “And why do you always give me such a hard time?”
Sensing that tack didn’t help, Greg offers a half-hearted apology. “Geez, I’m sorry.” But Sara’s in no mood to forgive. So he shrugs his shoulders and heads out the door. Back to the store to get the wine—two bottles, and big ones at that.
In our relationships with others, it’s inevitable that we’ll hurt them from time to time, even though we don’t mean to. The challenge then is finding a way to make things right again. Research shows what those with high levels of social intelligence already know—sincere apologies are usually very effective at mending relationships that have been damaged by thoughtless transgressions. But all too often, we stubbornly refuse to apologize, even when we know we’re in the wrong.
University of Pittsburgh psychologist Karina Schumann, who studies interpersonal conflict resolution, maintains that there are three reasons why people are reluctant to apologize after they’ve committed a transgression:
- They have a low level of concern for either the victim or the relationship.
- They perceive the transgression as a threat to their self-image.
- They believe apologizing won’t help repair the damage.
Let’s look at each of these reasons in more depth.
Low concern. An apology is an attempt on the part of the transgressor to repair damage they’ve done to a relationship. To do this, you need to show you have empathy for the pain you’ve caused the victim. And because apologizing is a self-effacing act, you have to value your relationship with the other person in order to be motivated enough to make the apology.
Schumann reports research indicating that people scoring high on the personality trait of narcissism generally see no need to apologize when they’ve wronged another person. Narcissists have low levels of empathy, so it’s hard for them to even understand what the other person is getting so worked up about. Furthermore, they view all relationships only in terms of their own self benefit. If you don’t like the way I behave, that’s just your tough luck.
But even for those of us normal, not-very-narcissistic folks, feeling empathy for our partner’s plight during a conflict can be extremely difficult. When your partner points out that you’ve offended them, it’s easy to recall plenty of instances when they’d also hurt your feelings—so what are they getting so upset about? Moreover, in the heat of the moment, it can be easy to forget the value your partner and your relationship with them has for you. So you discount the transgression as trivial and not worthy of an apology. You may even be tempted to blame the other person for making such a big deal out of nothing.
Threat to self-image. We all want to believe we’re essentially good people. So acknowledging the fact that we’ve hurt someone we care about conflicts with our precious—and often fragile—self-image. This is one reason why we tend to downplay the impact of the offenses we commit—I’m a good person, so what I did can’t be that bad. People often believe—mistakenly—that making a full apology will damage their self-esteem and make them feel worse about themselves as a result. They also fear—again mistakenly—that apologizing to the victim in public will make them look weak in the eyes of other people.
Schumann notes that people who believe that personality is fixed are especially susceptible to perceiving an act of apology as a threat to their self-image. If personal characteristics are immutable, then of course hurting someone they care about is inconsistent with their self-image as an essentially good person. In reality, of course, even good people sometimes do bad things. Understanding and accepting this fact of life can help ease the way into making an effective apology.
Belief that apology won’t help. Sometimes people don’t apologize because they don’t believe it will do any good. After what I did, what difference would an apology make anyway? This could stem from the belief that some transgressions are unforgivable. But only the victim can decide whether to forgive or not. And an apology at least opens up the possibility of forgiveness, especially when the transgressor expresses true remorse and empathy for the victim’s suffering.
There may also be unrealistic expectations about the process of atonement and forgiveness. You might think: “I’ve apologized to my partner before, and they were still mad at me.” But just because you apologize sincerely, that doesn’t mean the victim is obliged to forgive you right away. It may still take time, but at least the act of making an apology gets the process of forgiveness started.
Sincere apologies work because they return a sense of power to the victim. There’s always the possibility the other person will still choose not to forgive, but at least you’ve done your part to make amends. And in the vast majority of cases, the victim will be moved—though perhaps slowly—to forgive you if you apologize and atone for the wrong you’ve done. After all, we depend on our relationships for our very survival, and we can’t just toss them away lightly without also doing great harm to ourselves. So the victim in many cases also has self-motivation to forgive the transgressor.
In the end, though, some apologies are more effective than others. Half-hearted apologies, those that discount the harm done, or those that also find fault in the victim are not going to work. Instead, to make an apology that’s likely to be effective, you have to follow a few do’s and don’ts. Here are the do’s:
- Do apologize sincerely.
- Do show your empathy for the pain the victim has suffered.
- Do express your honest intention to atone for the transgression. (It’s up to the victim to decide what that atonement will be.)
And here are the don’ts:
- Don’t minimize the impact of the transgression.
- Don’t offer any excuses or defend yourself in any way.
- Don’t even suggest that the victim may have some blame as well. (If there is indeed blame on both sides, then the other person also needs to apologize. But whether they do or not is of no consequence to your own act of apology.)
Although apologizing can be hard to do, it is in fact the most effective approach to mending a broken relationship. It’s inevitable that we’ll hurt the ones we love. But when a transgression occurs, couples who go through the atonement-and-forgiveness process often find their feelings for their relationship stronger as a result: “We had a difficult situation, but we overcame it together.”
These couples also feel better about themselves. The victim feels heard and understood, as well as empowered by finding the capacity to forgive within themselves. Likewise, the transgressor not only experiences redemption but also feels a new inner strength because they see they have the integrity to own up to their mistakes and make amends. Ironically, when people stubbornly refuse to apologize, they deny themselves the salve that will heal their psychological wounds.