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3 Little Words: How Apology Can Enhance Romance -- A Valentine's Day Series, Part 3

02/13/2015 11:17 am ET | Updated May 21, 2015

There are three little words that may be harder to say than "I love you" ...

Tomorrow's Valentine's Day -- and we hope that our apology series has got you thinking about how the superwords, "I am sorry," might rekindle romance in your relationship.

In part one of our series, we wrote about the science of apology and forgiveness and asked you to consider what type of apologizer you (and your partner) might be.

In part two, we reviewed why communication matters, and offered ways to improve your communication -- and the intimacy that follows.

The good news? "I am sorry" are the first three words you'll need. The additional (not so bad) news? You're likely to need to follow them up with a few more words. That's where part three of our series comes in.

Now we will focus on finding the rest of the words you'll need to complete an apology. And, because neither you nor your partner is in it alone, we return to the importance of forgiveness in promoting trust, intimacy, and romance.

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HOW TO APOLOGIZE

What comes after "sorry" will, of course, depend on what's happened, but there are five tips for effective communication to keep in mind:

1. Pick your moment wisely. We often hear, "Strike while the iron is hot." With apology, it's the opposite. Wait until the conflict has cooled. This helps you prepare what to say -- not just by way of apology but also by offering solutions or compromises.

2. Be specific. In the heat of an argument, most everyone can be caught tossing about the "always-es" and "nevers" -- as though it is even possible for someone to "always" or "never" do anything! Be careful not to generalize when offering an apology. Be as specific as possible. For example, "I'm sorry that I raised my voice but you are always cutting me off mid-sentence" might become "I'm sorry that I raised my voice yesterday when we were disagreeing about childcare for next week. I felt frustrated because I had not said all I wanted to say when you started to speak."

3. Speak from your own perspective. The example above illustrates another critical part of an effective apology -- using "I" statements. Don't blame your partner for your behavior. When you apologize, talk about emotions you experienced. Because "I" statements are about your emotions, not about the other person, they are hard(er) to debate. They help in moving from conflict to resolution -- and achieving forgiveness.

4. What you don't say speaks volumes. No matter what words follow "I am sorry," you also will say a lot with eye contact, body posture, the tone and volume of your voice, and facial expression. Research has shown that we are awfully good at reading others' non-verbal cues. We respond to these cues not only with our thoughts, but with our physiology (e.g., heart rate, blood pressure). Look your partner in the eye. Take an open stance. Speak calmly. Listen.

5. Put yourself in your partner's position. When apologizing, be sure to imagine standing in your partner's shoes -- during the conflict and the apology. From your partner's perspective, what warrants an apology? How did your actions make him or her feel? What does your partner need to feel understood and considered?

APOLOGIZER, BEWARE

Depending on what type of apologizer you are, there are changes in your style you can make. Being different is hard, but remember you are paying a price for holding onto the status quo.

Here are ways to help each type of apologizer avoid some apology landmines:

Over-Apologizer. Ask yourself if how you are feeling -- guilty or anxious, perhaps -- is far beyond any "crime" you have committed. Would you be this upset if you were in your partner's shoes? When you apologize, listen carefully to your partner's response; let them forgive, and respect their need for closure.

• Under-Apologizer. Listen to your partner's words and pay attention to non-verbal cues. You may see that you need to do more by watching your partner's reactions. Look for their body posture to relax; that's a good sign you have done what needs to be done.

• Can't-Get-It-Right Apologizer. Prepare your apology. Write a few short ideas down. Try out different options with a trusted friend. When you feel ready -- even though "ready" might still mean nervous -- pick your moment carefully. Let your partner know that you're really trying to do "sorry" differently, and try asking for feedback afterwards.

LETTING IT GO: THE ART OF FORGIVENESS

Apologies invite forgiveness, which in turn promotes psychological and physical wellbeing. Forgiveness, of course, is just as much of an art as apology.

How can we all learn to graciously accept an apology? Here are a few ways:

Participate meaningfully in your partner's apology. Listen actively to what you hear. Give body signals that show you understand. Ask for more information. Invite questions about you.

Meet empathy with empathy. When a partner offers an apology, he or she is trying to see things from your perspective. Can you do the same? It takes courage to apologize, so in addition to meeting empathy with empathy -- meet their courage with your courage.

Identify next steps. Once your partner says "I'm sorry," it's your turn to respond. Say something that recognizes their effort. Offer ideas for compromise. Accept the apology and then try to build on the moment and create trust and intimacy. Don't be shy about saying "thank you" and "I love you."

Apology and forgiveness can't be bought at the flower shop. They cost less in money but more in effort. Yet they are priceless when it comes to romance -- on this Valentine's Day, and every day thereafter. They deepen the bonds of intimacy and trust. After you've said, "I am sorry," those three other little words -- "I love you" -- will mean so much more.

Happy Valentine's Day! For more on apology, see parts one and two of our Valentine's Day Series.

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Dr. Glasofer is a clinical psychologist and Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychology in Psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Dr. Sederer is a psychiatrist, Adjunct Professor at the Columbia/Mailman School of Public Health, and Medical Editor for Mental Health for The Huffington Post. www.askdrlloyd.com

The opinions expressed here are entirely our own. Neither author receives any support from any pharmaceutical or device company.