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Deanna Brann, Ph.D. Headshot

Apologies and Forgiveness: Ramping Up the Reality Factor

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I often hear people talk about those three little words that they find the hardest to say in relationships. What's interesting to me is that when people talk about these three words, they recognize how important they are, but they still give all sorts of reasons why they can't say them. What is even more interesting is that people won't say these words to the ones who matter the most to them -- spouses, parents, mothers-in-law, daughters-in-law, siblings, children, extended family, and even close friends. These are the people who need to hear those words the most. What are those three words I'm referring to? I am sorry.

Saying you are sorry takes a lot of courage because it makes you vulnerable. I know being vulnerable is scary, but if you think about it, it's the price you pay for hurting someone. No one likes to apologize, but no one likes to be hurt either. And when you put yourself out there by admitting that your words or actions have hurt someone you care about -- someone who really matters to you -- what you're actually doing is showing that person how much they do matter to you.

Sometimes in trying to escape feeling vulnerable, you might hurriedly say, "I'm sorry," and then try to change the subject or minimize what you did by giving excuses. This only makes the situation worse. So does saying you're sorry when you don't really mean it, just to get the focus off of you or just to move on. That can actually be worse than not apologizing at all. Believe me, the other person knows you don't mean it -- even if he or she doesn't say anything. The very nature of such a "drive-by" apology announces loudly and clearly that you are just trying to get this thing to go away. It's totally artificial. (Not to mention the infamously insincere, "I'm sorry but," which is actually not an apology at all!)

What usually happens after one of these types of "apologies" is that you will automatically expect the other person to be okay again. If the other person still seems upset, you might even say in defense, "But I said I was sorry!" as if that automatically wiped the slate clean between you. Yes, you did say you were sorry, but if you're truthful with yourself, even you don't believe it came from a place of genuinely wanting to resolve the pain and stress that you created. Remember, the other person is hurting because of your words or actions, and the true point of apologizing is to let that person know how much you regret having hurt him or her and that your intention was not to cause pain.

When you are going to say, "I'm sorry" to a person whom you've hurt, first consider these key points:

Own it. Say you're sorry and then tell the other person why you are sorry. Use words that let the person know you truly understand the impact your words or actions had.

Listen. Don't rush the apology. Even though it's difficult, let the other person talk about his or her pain without giving excuses.

Make up for it. Ask the other person what you can do to make things better or to right the wrong you created -- and then do it.

What if, on the other hand, you are on the receiving end of an apology? What do you do when you hear those words from someone else? Some of you melt and easily say, "I forgive you," even though your pain is still very present. You easily forgive because you want the stress and tension between the two of you to go away. But are you really forgiving the other person for the hurt and pain he or she caused you, or like the person giving the "drive-by" apology that I described earlier, are you trying to just move on so you can quickly return to the status quo?

Others of you might have the opposite reaction when someone apologizes. You might tend to hold your ground and cling to your hurt as though it's a badge of honor. You may refuse to accept the other person's apology, no matter what! Yes, you are hurt. And yes, the other person may have said or done something that cut you deep--maybe even deeper than you've ever been cut before. But what will it take for you to let it go? If the person apologizing really owned his or her mistake, really heard you when you expressed your pain, and really wanted to find some way to make you feel better, then isn't that the best possible scenario? And what do you have to gain by holding on to your hurt?

Often times when you don't want to let go of the hurt and pain another has caused you, it's because you feel the other person hasn't suffered enough. You don't believe (or you don't want to believe) that the other person knows how much he or she has hurt you. But what if that person does indeed know? What would it take for you to forgive then?

Forgiving isn't easy. As with saying "I'm sorry," forgiveness takes courage. It requires the ability to balance accepting that the other person is genuinely sorry with trusting that he or she will make a true effort not to hurt you in this way again.

Here are some suggestions that may help:

Listen. Pay attention to the other person's tone of voice during an apology, and watch his or her body language. This will help you know if the apology is genuine.

Share. Be willing to openly share with the other person how you feel and why. Then look at the other person's reaction to what you shared--again, this will help you know if you can trust the apology.

Respond thoughtfully. When the other person asks you how he or she can make it up to you, think about the question before you respond. This could be just the ticket you need to making a huge positive shift in the relationship.

As truly scary as it can be to say -- and hear -- the words, "I'm sorry," recognize the moment for what it really is: an opportunity to deepen and strengthen the relationship, taking it to a new level of closeness and trust. Don't be surprised if this not only changes the relationship, but also profoundly change both of you, too!