We’re imperfect people in an imperfect world. Most of us who have been in relationships whether with our parents, siblings, friends, pets, children, spouse or a significant other have at one time or another made a decision, taken an action, or done something that hurt someone we cared about or a relationship that we valued.

When we make mistakes, make decisions, or undertake actions that hurt another person and harm a relationship we apologize to the person we’ve harmed in the hopes that apologizing will ease the hurt and minimize the damage to the relationship. Sometimes this works and the person we’ve harmed forgives us and we move on with a sense that though the relationship went through a rough patch it has survived and will heal. Other times we apologize and the person that we’ve apologized to seems just as hurt as they were before we apologized and the relationship seems just as damaged.

It’s tempting in these situations to throw our hands in the air and wonder what the other person wants from us. Sometimes we feel angry with them that they aren’t able to forgive us and move on. Or we fall into the trap of blaming them for the awkwardness in the relationship because, after all, if they’d just accept our apology then we could both move on and get back to being happy.

Apologizing is more than saying, “I’m sorry.” The goal of apologizing is to repair damage to people or to relationships.

Apologies that repair relationships do a few things that apologies that don’t repair relationships don’t do.

Many of us grew up being taught to tell our brothers or sisters that we were sorry for this or that when we weren’t really sorry. So…the apology came out a mumbled, “sorry” that wasn’t really heartfelt. It was something said to get out of trouble.

Many of our adult apologies can have that same “something said to get out of trouble” feeling. These apologies can leave the person we harmed feeling as if we aren’t really sorry as if we really don’t get how much we hurt them or how much we harmed the relationship. This can make it difficult for the person we harmed to accept our apology.

An adult apology that is heartfelt needs to tick a few more boxes.

It needs to start with an understanding of what the other person needs from us.

Most of the time when we’ve harmed someone they want to know that we understand that we hurt them, and how much we hurt them, and they want us to know how much we’ve harmed the relationship that we shared. They also want to know that we are truly sorry and that we won’t do the same thing again. Sometimes if the person held us in high esteem and we did something that really disappointed them they want to understand why we did that thing so that they can allay their own fears that their judgment isn’t very good.

Since these are the things that the person we’ve harmed needs in order to forgive us it makes sense that any apology we offer would need to tick these boxes.

Sometimes the first part of apologizing is being willing to listen to the other person tell us how much we hurt them and being willing to let the hurt that we caused them to invade us so that we have a sense of just how hurt they are. Sometimes they need to rant at us…yell at us…cry. These are all ways that they convey to us how much we hurt them. Most people, can’t or won’t forgive enough to let an issue die completely until they know that we truly understand how much we hurt them and that we care deeply that we hurt them and our relationship.

Acknowledging the other person’s hurt and the damage to the relationship is the first step.

Once they know that we truly understand the depth of hurt we’ve caused then they want to know that we won’t do the same thing again.

Do you see how these two things go hand in hand? When we recognize the hurt and damage we caused and we express this to the person we allow them to know that we feel pain too. Yes, we’re the one that made the mistake, or made the bad decision and we feel their pain…but we feel our own pain too. We care about the person we harmed and we care about our relationship with that person so having anger, hurt, uncertainty in our relationship with that person hurts us too.

Part of the other person believing we won’t do the same thing again is them believing that we care about the damage we caused. They need to see that we feel the pain too.

If our mistake was minor including these two aspects in the apology might be enough. But most of the time, when we really mess up and we do something that really disappoints the other person or surprises them in a bad way because they expected better of us they are searching for a way to understand what went wrong with us…why we did what we did, said what we did, or made the mistake we made. To tick this box and help them forgive us we need to get honest with us and honest with them and be willing to explain honestly the factors that led to our mistake.

What is really at the heart of all of this is that apologies that repair relationships are built with a structure that gives the forgiving party the things that they need to begin to forgive.

Structuring your apology to give the other person what they need to begin to forgive doesn’t guarantee an easy path to redemption. There may be other things the injured party needs in order to forgive and if they are not able to forgive you may need to ask them what those are and be willing to really listen and hear them. There are things that the forgiving party needs to do to help heal the relationship as well. I’ll talk about that in part two of this post.

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