How to Apologize When You Haven't Done Anything Wrong
Have you ever been in a relationship where your partner let you know they wouldn’t be able to move on until you apologize to them? And you’re wondering why you should have to apologize when you don’t even know what you’re arguing about (and you clearly didn’t do anything wrong and they should get over it)?
Yep. It’s definitely a thing.
I totally get not wanting to apologize when you’ve experienced a rupture in your relationship. It feels yucky to admit you were wrong, did something that was hurtful, or acknowledge that you have work to do—ESPECIALLY if you feel like your partner is over-reacting, being too sensitive, or taking something the wrong way.
But here’s the thing: all of those assumptions are judgments, and we want to try to keep judgments out of the repair process as much as possible. Claiming that your partner is “too” anything is not going to support you in reconnecting with each other; it will only drive you further apart (and create more resentment and a greater sense of misunderstanding). The fact of the matter is this: your partner was hurt by something you did or didn’t do and it’s up to you to respond to their hurt. This may include apologizing (or maybe not, but we will get to that in a minute).
As we’ve talked about before, we all have emotional triggers that developed in our early relationships. If our needs weren’t met when we were young, we tend to become highly aware of whether they are being met in the present. Our response to whether those needs are met depends on our attachment style.
Because our important adult relationships are usually our most vulnerable relationships, it’s more likely that we will experience moments of hurt, confusion, or sadness without necessarily knowing why. The same parts of our brains are activated as were in our childhood and suddenly we are feeling the same feelings we felt when we were young but were not able to resolve them. Our adult relationships are an opportunity to find healing.
This means that when we are calmly discussing who is going to take the dog out for her last potty break before bedtime and it’s dark and freezing raining outside and I roll my eyes because OBVIOUSLY, it’s your turn—I did it 3 nights in a row—and I unknowingly trigger a sense of incompetence for you and you get quiet and closed off and agree to do it but it feels all kinds of crappy and not relieving to me, I’m left feeling super confused and defensive and wondering why the hell you are so sensitive tonight because I clearly didn’t do anything wrong (note: this has NEVER happened to me before ;)).
This kind of situation can happen in actual seconds. It doesn’t take long to experience an emotional trigger and then react.
This example also acknowledges that there are two things happening: one, I rolled my eyes and did something that set off the emotional trigger for you. And two: the trigger felt so strong that you were flooded with emotions that had very little to do with taking the dog outside (or even my eye rolling, as rude as it was). Understanding this is really helpful when it comes to repairing the relationship and apologizing. When I can make sense of the fact that the small thing I did gave you big feelings for reasons other than my words or actions, it’s much easier for me to move to a place of compassion and empathy around your response.
Repair is one of the keys to a healthy relationship and repair should be the goal when you and your partner have become disconnected. When it comes to apologizing, the bottom line is that your partner felt hurt. That’s what matters. You didn’t mean to hurt your partner in that way. It’s not about being right or proving your point; it’s about the fact that your partner experienced a sense of hurt or didn’t feel emotionally safe while in contact with you. That is worth an apology, in my opinion. When you deny your actions, you deny their experience. You can apologize to someone understanding that there is much more at play than the situation you witnessed. Your apology can help to heal old wounds that have nothing to do with you but that deeply impact your relationship. Seeing your partner in their pain and acknowledging that pain instead of focusing so much on the content of your disagreement shifts something. You aren’t repeating the same old broken pattern. You are putting something new, fresh, and healthy in to place. And THAT is the real work of relationships.
One of the things I have found in my personal relationships and my work as a therapist is that getting to the place where we are willing to apologize is sometimes all it takes to shift the dynamic between partners. When I can soften enough to acknowledge what I did and approach you with compassion, you feel that from me. My softening allows you to become more vulnerable and explore exactly what happened for you. When I am compassionate, I’m more willing to listen. I’m available. I’m open. Sometimes that’s all it takes to have the dialogue that needs to be had to create more understanding and connection. The apology might not even be necessary (although it flows much more easily once partners are reconnected) but I encourage it anyway. It’s not a bad idea to name the pain you caused someone and let them know you wish you hadn’t.
And if you are the person who is hurt, there are things you can do to create an opportunity for your partner to apologize. You can soften, too. When you are soft, you are more approachable. I understand this is easier said than done when you are feeling hurt. Utilizing self-soothing strategies can be helpful during these times. I also encourage you to notice the ways your partner is making an effort. Notice your expectations of them. Are you looking for an exact phrase or can you gather what you need from the efforts they are making?
Steps of a heartfelt apology:
Step 1: Recognize that something you did or didn’t do triggered an emotion for your partner that caused pain.
Step 2: Remember that you are someone who shows up in your relationship with integrity and a desire to heal as much as you can for yourself and your partner.
Step 3: Feel your heart in your chest. See your partner in their pain. Grow your compassion.
Step 4: Soften yourself. Breathe. Imagine your partner as a younger version of themselves, a version susceptible to pain, sadness, and loneliness.
Step 5: Move closer to your partner once you are soft. Make eye contact with them. See their pain. Acknowledge that you caused them pain and say these words: “I am sorry that I hurt you.”
Step 6: Sit close together for a while. Know that you are healing each other. The work you are doing together is powerful. Necessary. Revolutionary. Feel the anger, resentment, and confusion subside. Notice that those feelings are being replaced with a sense of calm, safety, and trust.
Once you have apologized and your partner has accepted your apology (or needs time to sit with it for a little bit), it’s time to let go of your feelings of guilt or anxiety. We all make mistakes and we all accidentally one another. It’s a natural part of life. Owning it and apologizing sincerely, as well as committing to doing things differently in the future, is the best we can do. It isn’t fair to expect perfection in an authentic relationship. Let yourself off the hook.
How does this resonate for you? What are your experiences with heartfelt apologies? I’d love to hear in the comments!