The Importance of Apology

Grey stone in shape of heart, on sand backgroundPost written by Steven Stosny,

It goes without saying that the most important elements of apology are sincerity and follow-through, i.e., feel what you say and “walk the walk,” not just “talk the talk.”

Research indicates that satisfying apologies are quite different for different people. An acceptable apology for you might not work for your partner and vice versa. Tell your partner what you need to feel reassured that the hurtful behavior is unlikely to recur. Of course, with repeated infractions, the requirements to feel safe will be greater.


You will find it impossible to apologize sincerely or effectively if you see it as submission. Sincere apology is never submission. In fact, it is one of the more beautiful of human interactions: reconciliation. The primary purpose of apology is to restore eventual (not necessarily immediate) connection. It is never to defend your ego.

Apology must not:

  • Be contingent on your partner apologizing
  • Be tempered by excuses
  • Have any element of blame (“It takes one to know one.”)
  • Seek immediate forgiveness (Trust must be restored gradually, through behavior that demonstrates trustworthiness over time.)

Apology must:

  • Come from your core value and sympathize with the effect of your behavior on your partner. (Focus on what it meant to your partner, not on how you would have been affected by it.)
  • State how important your partner’s well being is to you.
  • State how sorry you are that you’ve done something to hurt your partner and/or break your connection.
  • Offer recompense: “How can I make it up to you?”
  • If the offense is recurring, describe an action-plan to prevent future repetition of the offending behavior (which violated your core value to the extent that it hurt your partner or your relationship).

Action plan to prevent recidivism:

  • Identify the antecedents of the hurtful behavior – what you were thinking, feeling, and doing, as well as the state of your physical resources (e.g., hungry, tired, thirsty, having consumed more than two drinks or more than two cups of coffee, or eaten too much sugar) immediately before the infraction.
  • Give the details of how you will act differently under similar conditions in the future: “This is what I will do to remind myself how much I value you when similar conditions occur in the future.”
  • Imagine the impulse to violate your core value (hurtful behavior) and practice thoughts and behaviors that are incompatible with the impulse (improve, appreciate, connect, or protect). Practice the association until it becomes a conditioned response, such that the recurrence of the impulse automatically motivates the corrective behavior.
  • Keep a log of your practice sessions (associating the impulse to violate your core value with corrective behavior). Share the log with your partner.

If you’re receiving an apology, don’t see it as an opportunity for retaliation or revenge. (The surest way to discourage apology is to criticize or punish someone for doing it.) If your partner’s apology seems insufficient, acknowledge the repair attempt, then state what more you need to feel safe.

Mastering the art and science of apology not only does wonders for your relationship, it puts you solidly in touch with your core value. When solidly in touch with your core value, you feel more authentic and valuable, with no need for defenses of resentment or anger.