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The process of a heartfelt, effective apology

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“I’m sorry” is a common phrase, used almost reflexively when we bump someone in a hallway or show up five minutes late for an appointment. But for hurtful situations in close relationships, the apology process requires much more than a knee-jerk reaction.

When transgressions are serious, an effective, relationship-healing apology is an ongoing process that requires empathy and attitude changes for both the offending party and the person offended. The key is for the offender to develop a deep understanding of how the offended person has been hurt, according to Gilbert Parra, one of the authors of a study of apologies published last month in the Journal of Family Theory and Review.

“The more energy or effort the transgressor puts in to try to understand exactly why their behavior hurt the other individual, the more likely it is to lead to forgiveness and ultimately repair the relationship,” Parra said.

Anatomy of an apology

In close relationships, such as a couple or family relationship, there is a greater chance of acting in a way that hurts a loved one’s feelings, labeled in the study as “interpersonal transgression.”

“The likelihood of an apology increases when there is more intimacy in the relationship,” said Jarrett Lewis, another of the study’s authors.

Lewis and his colleagues identified five components of an effective apology:

  • Acknowledgment of wrongdoing
  • Acceptance of responsibility
  • Expression of remorse
  • Offer of compensation
  • Communication not to commit the transgression again in the future

Apologies become especially difficult when the offending person doesn’t understand why their behavior is hurtful. Relationship repair in these situations requires a deepening of empathy, according to relationship counselor and author Jeffrey Sumber.

“A real apology, an authentic apology, is a synthesis between my mind and my heart,” he said. “It’s a true response, because I’ve taken time to understand what I’m doing and what I’ve done.”

Sumber encourages clients to think about philosopher Martin Buber’s concept of “I-thou” versus “I-it” relationships.

“In the ‘I-thou’ relationship, when I encounter you, I encounter you as a ‘thou,’ ” Sumber said. “When you think of the Bible and lofty language, it’s this formal version of ‘you.’ So when I encounter you as a ‘thou,’ I see you as something holy and something sacred.” Acknowledging the value of the other person promotes empathy, making a true apology possible.

In the “I-it” relationship, Sumber says, “You’re here to make me happy. You need to do it, say it, be it, the way I think you should.” This attitude makes apology and reconciliation difficult.

When apologies fail

Often, a child’s first experience with apology is prompted by a parent’s demand. “A lot of us first learned about apology when we were told by our parents, ‘Tell your brother you’re sorry,’ ” said psychotherapist and relationship expert Abby Rodman. “We were forced to say those words, even when the last thing we felt was sorry.”

It’s admirable for parents to teach their children polite behavior, but parents can go a step farther and teach their children empathy, according to Rodman.

“Parents could take the time to sit down with their kids and say, ‘Why do you think your brother or your sister feels so sad right now? What do you think you did to contribute to that?’ ” Rodman said.

An insincere, quick apology can sometimes be a way to escape a difficult conversation, which does nothing to repair a relationship, according to psychologist Harriet Lerner, author of “The Dance of Anger.”

“A bad apology flattens you,” Lerner said. “ ‘I’m sorry’ won’t cut it, if it’s a quick way to get out of a difficult conversation, or followed by a justification or excuse.”

“Apology fails when it’s detached from emotion, when I say the right things, but it’s mechanical and robotic, and you know clearly that I’m not in alignment with what I’m saying,” according to Sumber.

An offhanded dig in the apology, like "I’m really sorry that I hurt you, but I never would have hurt you if you didn’t say or do that thing,” will also ensure it will fail, Sumber said.

The offending person needs to take responsibility for the hurt they have created, according to Rodman. “‘I’m sorry you feel that way,’ or ‘I’m sorry you’re so upset,’ are not apologies,” she said. “They’re blaming statements. They put the burden on the injured party.”

Forgiveness is liberating

For the offended, accepting an apology is an opportunity for growth and deepening the relationship, Rodman said.

Another reason for forgiveness is the knowledge that everyone has been both offender and offended.

“Forgiveness is liberating,” Rodman said. “When we forgive others, we also make room for forgiving ourselves. If we can learn to accept true apologies, maybe we can be a little bit easier on ourselves, as well.”

However, forgiveness does not require staying in a harmful relationship, she cautioned.

“If someone continually injures you in the same ways over and over again, you need to decide how sincere they are in their remorse,” she said.

Apology as a process

For serious transgressions, like infidelity, lying or stealing, apologies cannot be completed in a single conversation. “An apology can be an ongoing, living and breathing entity in a relationship,” Rodman said.

Behavior changes are an important part of the apology process, according to Rodman.

For example, she counseled a couple after the wife discovered her husband was having an affair with a colleague while traveling for business. “To his credit, the husband continually offered heartfelt apologies. He felt awful about what he had done and regularly expressed his shame and remorse, but his wife was still having difficulty forgiving him.” Rodman said.

The offending husband made changes in his behavior. He cut back on his business travel and instituted a “kitchen table policy,” in which everything — his cellphone, laptop, tablet or anything else, was open and available for his wife to look at.

Because the husband backed up his apologies with behavior changes, the marriage was saved, Rodman said.

In a similar situation, saving a marriage required a more complete acknowledgement of wrongdoing, according to Sumber. When he counseled a couple after the husband’s infidelity, the husband seemed to be using repeated apologies as a way of stopping conversation and avoiding his wife’s hurt.

“He just said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ But it was more like trying to sweep apologies at her with such force that she would just drop it,” Sumber said.

“When he finally found his way to an authentic apology, she really felt it. It shifted their process from a divorce process to a reconnecting and healing process,” Sumber said.

“That apology was transformative for their relationship.”