This post has been reviewed for clinical content by Clinical Psychologist and Sex Therapist, Dr. K

Apologizing to your spouse means admitting your mistakes and understanding how they have affected your partner.

A sincere apology must show empathy and compassion, and it must express genuine remorse for hurting their feelings. It is also important to avoid justifying or rationalizing your behavior, instead, focus on making amends and repairing the damage done.

Notice if defensiveness is creeping in and address it, undoubtedly you have a point of view as well. If you try to defend yourself during an argument, you are putting the blame on your partner who is already hurt. That is not what you are setting out to do.

Admit when you are wrong and apologize sincerely. We will all find ourselves in marital conflict from time to time, learning how to apologize is time well spent. A good apology will make your partner feel heard and valued by you.

Genuine apologies, not fillers

We are all familiar with non-apologies:

  • “I am sorry you feel that way.”
  • “I am sorry if you are offended, I didn’t mean it that way.”
  • “I apologize if you are upset, I was only trying to plan a fun surprise.”

These are conversation stoppers. If you feel them on the tip of your tongue, pause.

What’s your motivation here? Are you showing concern with how your spouse feels?

We tend to use these phrases when we want to end a conversation quickly and move on. These aren’t statements of curiosity or compassion. It’s a commentary on your partner’s reactions.  “I’m sorry you are having that reaction.” They tend to be signs of defensiveness (one of Gottman’s four horsemen).

How to apologize to your partner

In order to deliver a heartfelt apology, partners need to start with an attitude of curiosity. Steve Covey tells us, “seek first to understand.” Turn the heat down on your defensiveness by tuning into your partner.

“Please forgive me.” May also fall short for your wife or husband. Actions are more important than words; this statement does not demonstrate understanding or a plan for the future.

Sometimes we are very aware of our errors; they would appear problematic to an outsider. The husband who needs to apologize to his wife for infidelity likely knows where he went wrong. However, he still needs to carefully and non-defensively listen to how his actions affected her to begin the process of apology and reconciliation.

There are other times when we are initially unaware of the hurt we have caused until our partner points it out. A wife tells a “funny” story at a dinner party that her husband felt was too private to share. She thought it was amusing to tell amongst friends, he was embarrassed. She won’t realize the discomfort she caused until he talks about it (hopefully using softened startups) and she truly listens. 

When a couple apologizes, it needs to come from a relationship-building place of authenticity. Show your partner that you care. Your partner is hurt and you know you contributed to that feeling. What should you do next?

Gottman recommends a four step apology:

Step one

 Apologize; “I am sorry….”  Are you genuinely sorry, or do you just want to stop talking about the subject? There is a difference between trying to close down the conversation and genuinely feeling back that you upset someone. You have to understand your partner’s perspective enough to get why they were upset. That means you need to ask questions and explore it until you do. 

Step two

Take responsibility; “…that I told that story at Becky’s party.” Now you can be specific because you understand exactly what you did to offend. Notice if you feel blamed or want to justify yourself. Notice if you are thinking: “It’s not such a big deal. It wasn’t a personal story at all. He’s so hypersensitive!” That is criticism and maybe contempt that needs to be looked at.

Step three

How will you resolve this; “I will be more careful about what I share in the future and I will check with you if there is any doubt in my mind.” Check in to make sure these actions will really fit the situation in the future.

Step two

Ask for forgiveness; “Will you forgive me?” Sometimes the answer will be “no” as the person tries to come to grips with their own hurt emotions. However, if you’ve done step 1-3 carefully, and you are never forgiven, consider if larger issues are left unresolved.

The formula is simple, depending on the regretted incident these steps may require a lot more support and development. Affair recovery is one example where apologies will likely not be enough. Our intensive weekends can help with that.

How to receive an apology

“Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.” Paul Boose

Accepting an apology, and working towards forgiveness allows you to grow together. We will all make mistakes, sometimes those mistakes lead to greater things later. There are some mistakes that should not be ignored even if the partners want to say sorry. Typically, with the right help, there is a very good chance of recovery.

With that in mind, these are the steps to follow if you are on the receiving end of an apology:

  1. Acknowledge the apology; “Thank you for saying you are sorry.”
  2. Appreciate or validate something they said; “I was embarrassed that you told that story but I know you didn’t mean to hurt me.”
  3. Respond to their plan; “If you check in with me, that’s fine, I don’t mind the stories that you tell most of the time.”
  4. Bid for affection; humor, affection, sex, go do something fun, tell another story–whatever works for the two of you when it’s time to reconnect.

Keep checking in, keep healing

After a weekend intensive we encourage couples to continue on their own with State of the Union meetings. These meetings happen every week. You discuss the strength of your emotional connection and engagement with each other. 

A part of that process is selecting one area where there might be some tension between the two of you. Talking about these things when both of you are calm and have enough time allows for a more in-depth discussion. You may discover that there is more to discuss for forgiveness to really progress. This is a great time to do that.