The Apology Languages
Do you know that there are five different apology languages? As an experienced couples counselor and marriage counselor, I’m going to give it to you straight: unresolved relationship injuries don’t just go away. Healthy relationships require many things, but among them is the ability to make a meaningful apology for the purpose of healing your relationship, and restoring trust — as well as emotional safety. Without it, an injured relationship is like a broken bone that doesn’t get set properly: It’s never the same.
In online marriage counseling and couples therapy sessions, we often work with couples who have felt hurt by their partners (and partners who don’t know how to make it better). The relationship wounds are painful, but they never really heal unless, and until, a meaningful apology is made. Remember, when it comes to apologizing, it’s not just what you say – it’s the way you say it, and, even more importantly, what you DO in the aftermath that counts.
A genuinely meaningful apology is about so much more than words. “Sorry” isn’t good enough. A true apology is verbalized in a humble and vulnerable way but also shown with behaviors that communicate your sincere understanding and care more than words ever will. And not just any behaviors — it has to be the ones that are meaningful to your specific person. “Apology languages” refer to the combination of words and behaviors that will heal the rupture in your particular relationship.
This article will help you understand the right way to repair your relationship after a fight. If you’d prefer to listen, I’ve also created an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on this topic. You can tune in on this page, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
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We All Make Relationship Mistakes
Some relationship injuries are obvious and dramatic, like having a horrible fight, being married with a crush on someone else, or even worse — actually having an affair. Some relationship injuries are only revealed after you both grow together through couples counseling, such as when you realize you’ve been engaging in a codependent relationship dynamic or habitually communicating in emotionally unsafe ways that make your partner feel invalidated or lead them to shut down.
But many relationship injuries go unnoticed. These “relationship-death by a thousand cuts” scenarios are incredibly common, and I think we can all relate to making some of these common relationship mistakes that destroy a relationship. But I can also tell you as a marriage counselor that when relationships fail and marriages end, it’s not usually because of some big explosive event. It’s because people have been so disappointed by each other, over and over again, they haven’t been good friends to each other, and have then missed the opportunities along the way to make meaningful apologies that repair your relationship effectively. Without a meaningful apology, even small relationship injuries can become a relationship-threatening abscess of unresolved hurt.
Empathizing with Apology Languages
Picture this common scenario: You’re on your way home for dinner, running late again for the 4th time this week. You are in the middle of a crazy project at work and are doing the best you can to juggle it all, but it’s hard to set boundaries with your job.
As you rush home, you are apprehensive because you know your partner is going to be hurt. They work from home, alone, and really look forward to the two of you sitting down for dinner together. They’ve told you many times how important it is to them.
You know that you didn’t intentionally stay late at work, and the past few months have been so busy, but that doesn’t change the fact that you are late again. You’re thinking of how to apologize the moment you walk in the door. (Though, as a human, you’re also secretly hoping that they can have empathy for your perspective, too).
Can you relate??
Not All Apologies Are The Same
What does your apology sound like? Do you tell them you’re sorry for running late? Do you tell them you understand why they feel hurt because of your actions? Do you talk about how you can make sure you aren’t late again? Do you ask your partner for forgiveness and give them time to decide?
“Sorry” Only Counts When It’s Meaningful
There are many ways to apologize to our loved ones, but did you know there are different apology languages, and depending on which one you speak, some will be more meaningful than others? Similar to The Five Love Languages written by Gary Chapman, the Five Apology Languages each capture a different type of apology we need when our partner is trying to make amends. Just like each love language (i.e. Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Physical Touch, Gift Giving, and Acts of Service) are simply different and not superior to any others, the same can be said about each apology language. One is not better than the other, we simply prefer a way of apologizing and feel most heard when our apology language is spoken by others. All are great ways to strengthen a relationship… but not every relationship. Understanding what truly matters to your partner is vital.
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The Apology Languages
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The Five Apology Languages
What are the five apology languages, and how are they different? Let’s take a look at each of the apology languages to understand better which apology language fits you. Keep in mind that, while you may have one or two apology languages, each apology language is important and serves a purpose. Don’t underestimate the power of any of these apology languages!
- Expressing Regret: This apology language focuses on the emotional hurt you’ve experienced from the other person’s actions or behavior. Focusing on emotional hurt means that hearing a genuine “I’m sorry” goes a long way for you. When someone is expressing regret, you feel that they are expressing the guilt and shame they feel for hurting you or causing you pain. You are not looking for “the next step” in how to fix the problem; you are looking for the person who’s hurt you to own the emotional hurt they’ve caused.
- Accepting Responsibility: This apology language requires the person apologizing to admit they were wrong and accept responsibility for their wrongdoing. This can be difficult for us to do as it is challenging to admit to your mistakes, especially if those mistakes have caused pain to someone else. However, if this is your apology language, you are looking for a genuine apology that accepts responsibility and does not attempt to make excuses or justifications. For an apology to feel genuine, you need the other person to simply say “I am wrong,” without further explanation.
- Genuinely Repent: This apology language focuses on how the person apologizing will modify their behavior in future similar situations. Not only is there a genuine apology for the pain caused, but also verbalization for the desire to change. Genuinely repenting takes an extra step towards change, as you need to hear the person express they want to change and set realistic goals for how they will make those changes. Unlike expressing regret, you ARE looking for that “next step” and how your partner will ensure this does not happen again.
- Make Restitution: This apology language requires justification or explanation for the person’s wrongdoing. If this is your apology language, you want to hear from your partner that they still love you, even though they hurt you. There are many ways to make restitution, especially if we look at the five love languages. Essentially, you’re looking for assurance that your partner still cares and is attempting to assure you by meeting your needs in the ways that are most important to you.
- Request Forgiveness: This apology language is all about asking for forgiveness and giving your partner space to decide if they forgive you. If this is your love language, it is meaningful to you for your partner to actually ask for your forgiveness. Requesting forgiveness is much different than demanding forgiveness. The key to requesting forgiveness is to allow the hurt partner to make the final decision, rather than force it upon them. By demanding forgiveness, you are taking away the sincerity if forgiveness is given.
Understanding Your Partner, and Yourself
If you’re not aware of your partner’s apology language, you’re going to be making relationship repair attempts that feel meaningful to you… but not necessarily to them.
Many people think that marriage counseling, couples therapy, and relationship coaching is all about trying to make people change. While positive change is certainly part of the process when couples grow together, what is actually the first priority is helping them understand each other accurately, and develop love, appreciation, and acceptance for who they really are.
So with that intention in mind, hold your partner in your mind for a moment. Think about their personality, way of being, values, and the things you know are important to them. From that place of understanding and acceptance, I’d like to invite you to think about what your partner’s apology language likely is.
Now, even more importantly: any guesses as to which apology language is yours? The reason it is important to understand your own apology language is that unless we have clarity about our differences, your default apology language is going to be your own. If you’re not aware of your partner’s apology language, you’re going to be making relationship repair attempts that feel meaningful to you… but not necessarily to them. Furthermore, if you have clarity about your apology language, you can share this information with others to help them understand what you need.
I know that I’m asking you to imagine here, in order to generate empathy for your partner’s perspective, but I’ll also say this directly: it’s a good idea to ask your partner what their apology language is, instead of guessing or assuming. If they haven’t heard that term before, share this article with them.
Apology Languages In Action
Let’s say that your apology language is Expressing Regret, and your partner’s apology language is Genuinely Repent. While there are similarities to these languages, there is a pretty big difference. You may not need to hear your partner verbalize a desire to change and share how they are going to make those changes, but it sounds like this is something your partner needs to hear. It can be challenging to add that extra step to your apology if it’s not what you are expecting. Wouldn’t it be helpful to know how your partner’s apology language differs from yours so that you can apologize in ways they feel heard and understood, ultimately turning conflict into connection? (Hopefully, you’re answering “yes!”).
Now that you know there are different apology languages, I challenge you and your partner to take the Apology Languages quiz online (https://www.5lovelanguages.com/profile/apology/ ). After learning what your apology languages are, sit down and talk about them. Learn about each other, and how you can apologize in a way that your partner feels understood and cared for.
For even more detailed information to help strengthen your bond, take our free online How Healthy is Your Relationship quiz to get a snapshot of your relationships’ strengths and growth opportunities in a variety of domains. Then you can have a productive conversation about what you both love about each other… and what you’re also needing more of. Take this opportunity to grow together!
Also, some free relationship advice: when the hurt is big, or when there has been a major betrayal such as infidelity, “sorry” is just not good enough — no matter how you say it, or which apology language you use. The work ahead is not about making amends. It’s about restoring and repairing trust in your relationship. Restoring trust is difficult, but it can absolutely be done. Just remember that restoring trust is never an “event” where you say or do one thing to make it better. Trust is restored over time, and with intention and effort. There is a healing process that couples need to go through in order to mend their bond, release anger, and recover from infidelity. This doesn’t happen overnight, and it usually requires the support of an expert relationship coach or couples therapist. However, remembering your partner’s apology language is a great place to begin showing them that you love them and that you’re committed to doing what it takes to repair your relationship.
Our authentic relationship experts know how to help you learn, grow, and move forward into a bright new chapter.
[02:44] How to Be More Vulnerable in Relationships
- Injured relationships are like broken bones — they won’t heal unless you set them correctly.
- Real apologies are humble and vulnerable.
- The recipient of an apology should feel the remorse of the person apologizing.
- There are apology languages, similar to love languages.
- Not all relational wounds are dramatic. They can be small, like coming home late from work and being defensive.
[14:00] How to Fix a Relationship After a Fight
- Defensiveness can deepen existing relational wounds.
- Expressing regret should be wrapped and delivered in empathy.
- It’s vital to accept that your behaviors can be hurtful to your partner or people you love.
[28:06] Accepting Responsibility and Moving Forward — Together
- What evidence is there that things will be different moving forward?
- It’s essential to request forgiveness, but never force it.
- Your partner has to give consent to the healing process.
[33:28] Growing Together in a Relationship
- Growing together involves understanding your partner clearly and empathetically.
- It’s also critical to understand yourself. Let your partner join you on that journey of self-understanding.
- Sometimes, when your partner hurts you, it’s not personal. It may be that they’re struggling too.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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