What Does “Sorry” Mean To You?
Picture this: You’re on your way home for dinner, running late again for the 4th time this week. As you rush home after a long day at work, you know your partner is going to be hurt because they enjoy when the two of you sit 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 into the door.
In online marriage counseling and couples therapy sessions, we often see couples who have felt hurt by their partners (and partners who don't know how to make it better). 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 that counts.
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 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? 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) is 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.
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 better understand which apology language fits for 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 after feeling hurt. There are many ways to make restitution, especially if we look at the five love languages. To feel loved after an apology, your partner must meet your love language to make restitution. 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
Any guesses as to which apology language is yours? What about your partner’s apology language? The reason it is important to understand your own apology language is because you can share this information with others to help them understand what you need. It is also helpful to hear from others what their apology language is to improve communication.
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 in 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 apology in ways they feel heard and understood? (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 ways 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's 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 trust in your relationship. Restoring trust is difficult but it absolutely can 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.