Telling someone that you are sorry — and actually meaning it — can be one of the most difficult parts of a relationship. It is also one of the most critical parts. If, for example, you have a boyfriend you’d like to keep for a while, you will at some point need to make a sincere, specific, unqualified, ego-free apology. And if you don’t have a boyfriend, the techniques discussed here will work for just about anyone.
Admit to yourself that you were wrong.
An insincere apology is usually more trouble than no apology at all. If you can’t convince yourself that you are sorry, you probably won’t convince him.
Think about when you were a child. Whenever you were forced to make a half-hearted apology to your brother for some minor offense, did it really make either of you feel better?
If you can’t bring yourself to see (and say) that you did anything wrong, then you may need to be willing to lose the relationship. That may be the right choice, but be clear on the possible consequences as you decide whether you can and will apologize.
Consider the impact of your offense.
The time-worn notion of putting yourself in another’s shoes is appropriate here. Think closely about how your actions have impacted your boyfriend and why an apology is warranted. This will help you craft a sincere and effective “I’m sorry.”
For example, a seemingly innocuous offhand comment on your part about how lousy your school’s basketball team is this year may seem like a bigger deal when you consider that your boyfriend tried out for the team and didn’t make it.
While you usually hear people say “don’t make a mountain out of a molehill,” this is a situation where you may want to do exactly that. Don’t succumb to our natural inclination to downplay the severity of our own actions; focus instead on the genuine hurt you have caused.
If you’ve done something wrong and you know it, your guilt can get in the way of making a sincere apology that focuses on the aggrieved party (your boyfriend, for instance). Accepting and moving past your errors will enable you to direct your energies toward your partner’s needs.
You may find that doing some self-affirmation exercises (repeating a mantra, doing yoga, writing down your thoughts) before apologizing helps relieve some of the guilt than can make you act defensively as you try to apologize.
If you can’t let go, accept your faults, and move forward, odds are your boyfriend won’t be able to either.
Plan your apology.
While an off-the-cuff “Sorry!” is appropriate when you accidentally step on your boyfriend’s toe or spill your drink on him, more serious apologies are best made with preparation and even practice.
In order to ensure that you cover the “three R’s” — regret, responsibility, and remedy — that most good apologies include, it is best to think about exactly what you want to say. Practicing in front of a mirror or a friend may even help.
Face-to-face apologies are usually best, but written ones can be an option if your boyfriend refuses to see you (because you forgot to pick him up at the airport, for instance), or if you know your apology will come out much better that way.
While waiting until you can get your apology just right is normally preferable, it may sometimes be best to preemptively apologize before he expresses his hurt feelings. For example, if you know he’ll be mad you forgot his birthday, you may want to be ready with a good “I’m sorry” before he has a chance to express his disappointment.
Whatever form your apology takes, make it crystal clear that you are the responsible party and he is the one who has been wronged. Don’t try to minimize, justify, or share blame.
Even if there is blame to share, this is your apology, so you should focus on what you did wrong. Don’t focus on the apology you think you deserve (right now, anyway), but on the one you deserve to give.
Think about using sentences that follow the form “I … you,” where you fill in the specifics of what you did to hurt him, and what you will do to either fix the damage of prevent a repeat.
Say the words he needs to hear.
If you’ve ever been disappointed by the non-apology “apologies” that many politicians and celebrities seem to excel at giving, it may be the lack of specific admissions of guilt and remorse that bother you.
More often than not, it is best to specifically say “I’m sorry” and “I was wrong.” Such simple phrases can be incredibly difficult to say, but they are the foundation of a good apology.
Throwing in a “because” as well — where you clearly express why you are at fault — is also a good idea.
Compare, for instance “My bad. My friends and I were having so much fun that I totally lost track of time and forgot about your show” with “I am sorry that I missed your band’s show. I was wrong to not make it my first priority for tonight, because I know it was important for me to be there to support you.”
Respect his feelings.
You may hope that he will immediately accept your well-crafted apology and forgive you on the spot, but hurt feelings don’t always heal so quickly. While you don’t have to accept verbal abuse (and certainly not any other kind), give some leeway for him to vent his frustrations or disappointment.
It can be difficult to make apologies, and it is tough for many people to receive them. Some may use the apology as an excuse to unload a whole host of hurt feelings. Or he may clam up and say nothing, or try to ignore or avoid listening to you. Focus on what you can control, and listen patiently if he wants to speak.
Don’t demand or expect forgiveness, at least not right away. Instead of putting it on him by saying “please forgive me,” instead state “I hope that you can offer me your forgiveness at some point.”
Speak clearly, directly, and sincerely.
As indicated by the previous steps in this article, the best apologies are well thought-out, get to the point, and are explicit about your culpability, remorse, and dedication to healing the wound.
Consider the following sample apologies, which utilize the “three R’s” of regret, responsibility, and remedy:
“I’m sorry, I realize that by being late I made us miss the first part of the movie. Next time the movie is on me.”
“I’m sorry. I know it is difficult for you to trust people and my lying to you hasn’t made it any easier. I shouldn’t have lied no matter how afraid I was of your reaction. I promise to be truthful to you from now on.”
“I’m sorry for talking to you like that. I shouldn’t have said those words to you. I’ll work on letting you know when I don’t like something instead of holding it all in and then exploding like that.”
Follow through on your promises.
If you’ve offered a remedy with your apology, then be sure you are willing and able to back it up. Think of your apology as being incomplete until you follow through with this final part of it.
If you’ve promised not to be late anymore, change your routines in noticeable ways so that you can be on time. A recognizable change in behavior is a good sign of sincerity.
Each time you have to make the same apology over again, it will become less believable and less acceptable. Maybe you can’t completely change your tendency of saying hurtful things when you’re stressed out, but a demonstrated effort to change will make the next apology more likely to be accepted.
Use the power of touch.
An apology paired with hand-holding or a hand on the shoulder, or followed by a hug, can prove even more effective. Touch expresses intimacy (you know and understand him) and sincerity (you really mean what you are saying).
Rely on your judgment, of course. If you’ve really hurt someone, he may recoil at your touch. Don’t try to force contact when it is not welcomed. But you may be surprised by how often even the most stoic of boyfriends will want a hug when his feelings are hurt.
Pair your apology with a caring act.
A good apology demonstrates that you know this other person well, and including an act that you know will be appreciated can further amplify it.
Write a poem or song about him. Paint a picture or assemble a photo collage of happy times you have shared. Make his favorite meal. Volunteer to help out at his favorite charitable organization.
The act doesn’t necessarily have to be related to your offense, but that can be particularly effective in some circumstances. If you forgot his birthday, throw him a surprise “Happy Belated Birthday” party a week or two later. Pull out all the stops to make it his kind of party.
Not to generalize on all boyfriends, but some may particularly welcome caring acts of a more physical nature. If you are comfortable with it, that is your decision to make. Never let yourself be forced to do anything you don’t want to do — of any sort, physical or otherwise — as part of an apology, however. Apologizing is not an invitation to be taken advantage of.
Demand nothing in return.
Remember to focus on your role and on what you need to do as part of your apology. You can’t control how he will respond, or what he will say or do.
All you can do is show yourself to be a good partner by demonstrating that you can admit when you’re wrong and work to remedy the situation. It is up to him to demonstrate his true nature in how he responds and whether he can admit his role (if he has one) in the problem.
Freely-given apologies (and offers of forgiveness) are important to the long-term success of a relationship. Coerced apologies and demands for forgiveness are shaky ground to build a relationship upon.
Similarly, don’t expect him to take part of the blame for the issue or to minimize your role in what happened because you apologized. Just make a clean apology.