The Three Crucial Elements to Apologizing

Learning how to apologize is a critical skill that many of us never properly learn. Sure, we might be able to say, “I’m sorry,” but the aspect of the apology that matters most is telling the other person that you truly understand their feelings and the impact that your words or actions had on them. A proper apology is an empathic apology, one that expresses the ability to understand another’s experience and emotion.


Taking responsibility and owning mistakes can feel vulnerable and scary, but the fact is: To be human is to be imperfect and we can’t be in a relationship without making mistakes. The only way to maintain long-term health and connection in any relationship is having the ability to repair.


The more we practice apologizing the easier it becomes, so start small, but no matter how small the apology may be, there are three crucial elements of an apology that should be included. In our recent Glue Groups: A Couples’ Roadmap to Authentic Connection, Rachel Cahn, taught the group these three crucial elements to an apology:


  1. Accountability. This is when the person making the apology takes responsibility for what they said and did, regardless of whether they intended to hurt the other person or not. Even if you didn’t intend to sound critical, if your partner feels criticized by something you said, take responsibility.
  2. Emotional Impact. Naming how the other person felt in response to what you said or did.
  3. Expressing Regret. Only after these two steps do you actually say, “I am sorry.”

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Rachel shared an example from her personal life of what this might sound like. The previous night, her husband Jeff, was in the midst of sautéing onions for a small dinner party and Rachel said, “Are you really going to sauté the onions that much?” Let’s pause here, I am guessing many of you are thinking that this sort of comment is to be expected in a marriage, but the truth is these kinds of comments erode a relationship over time. Rachel could see that Jeff felt criticized and that she had a repair to do, which would sound something like this:


“That comment I made to you about the onions didn’t feel good to you. I see that you felt criticized and embarrassed in front of our friends. I am sorry I said that, and I am sorry that I made you feel criticized.”


She took responsibility. She named the emotional impact. She expressed regret.


This is a simple practice, though not necessarily an easy one if you aren’t used to doing it. If there is resistance to apologizing, try to remember the long-term goal of connection and the fact that not doing it may cost you your relationship, and doing it may bring you closer together!


Rachel Cahn and her husband Jeff Pincus are couples’  therapists in Boulder, Colorado and trainers for Stan Tatkin’s PACT model of couples’ therapy. Dr. Stan Tatkin will be in Boulder for a Glue Talk on May 19th along with Bruce Tift, join us!



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