How To Accept An Apology

I recently received this from a reader:

My boyfriend did something that hurt me deeply, and while he has apologized many times and we have talked about it a lot, I can’t seem to let it go.

I know this is in no small part because I have a pretty low tolerance for hurt in relationships (I do not speak with any of my exes, for example, much to the dismay of at least one of them), and that’s largely related to being raised in an emotionally abusive and toxic environment. I only know how to be upset and how to pretend things are okay, not how to be upset and then genuinely work through it.

How do I learn to let things go?

Being able to accept an apology is a lot harder than we usually recognize. Partly, that’s because there are a lot of steps to apologizing well. And partly, that’s because past hurts can leave bruises, especially if the people who were responsible for them didn’t offer real apologies and amends. I’m glad that you and your boyfriend can talk about what happened and it’s clear that you want to find ways to move on, so the first question I have for you is: when the two of you discuss what happened and he apologizes, how does that go?

Apologies are pretty complex because there are a lot of pieces to include. While some folks suggest that you don’t really need to make sure they’re all there, I find that apologies work best when you do. Different people have different histories and triggers, and while one person might only need some of these pieces, someone else might want a different combination. Using all of them means that you don’t have to try to recall which elements each person needs. Besides, including all of them shows a good faith effort that doing the bare minimum might not.

So here are the five steps I think are important, with some thoughts on how to work with them and some questions to help you sort out where each step might have room for improvement.

Step 1: attention

The first thing to do when something happens between you and your boyfriend is to bring the issue to his attention and let him know that he’s done something that hurt you. There’s a lot that can be said about how to do that with honesty, clarity, and compassion. The biggest challenge that I see people get stuck on is how to be direct about how they feel without dumping it on the other person. It’s easy to squash your own emotions in order to not “make the other person feel bad” and it’s easy to attack, blame, and shame them. Finding that middle path is a bit more difficult.

The reason this is important is that he needs to know what he’s apologizing for. He can only do that to the degree that you tell him. Otherwise, he’s left guessing and while he might hit the target, especially if he knows you well, he’s much more likely get it right when he knows what happened. Of course, he also needs to be able to receive that without getting caught in an anger loop or a shame spiral. I can strongly recommend Nonviolent Communication, The Institute for Powerful Non-Defensive Communication, and the Interchange Counseling Institute for resources and help.

Some questions you might want to ask yourself: do I feel comfortable and safe bringing this to his attention? Can I do that directly? Am I trying to minimize how I feel in order to keep him from feeling bad? Am I attacking or shaming him? Are there ways we can improve our communication to make this easier?

Step 2: acknowledgement

In some ways, this is the hardest part of apologizing. It takes a lot of integrity to look someone in the eye and acknowledge how our actions have hurt or harmed them. One reason that so many people jump to apologizing before acknowledging is that they don’t know how to sit with the impact of their behaviors. If your boyfriend can’t say it in a way that you can hear, you’ll be left wondering if he really understands. You’ll also be trying to guess whether he’ll be able to change his behavior in the future. Repairing a relationship after an injury can only happen when there’s clarity about what took place.

For example, rather than saying “I’m sorry I messed up,” it’ll be a lot more effective if he says, “I said I’d be home by 6 and I forgot that I had a late meeting at work. I didn’t text you to let you know and the dinner you made for me was ruined.” The second version makes it really clear that he understands what he did and what effect it had.

Of course, he might not get it right the first time. It might take a few tries before he can include all of the different pieces, and it’s up to you both to make sure that the acknowledgement is as complete as it can be. It’s also up to you to be honest about what hurt you. If you start making things up just to see him squirm, you’re not doing this in good faith. On the other side, he needs to be able to talk about what he did and what effects it had, without wallowing in self-blame or shame. That requires shame resilience, which is something that comes with practice.

Some questions to think about: did he acknowledge everything about this situation that I need him to? Do I feel heard? Are there details missing? Are there larger relationship patterns that we need to acknowledge?

Step 3: apology

Once you both know that the he has a handle on what happened, it’s time for him to apologize. I strongly suggest using the words “I’m sorry” or “I apologize”. It needs to be as unambiguous as possible. It also needs to demonstrate taking responsibility. There’s a big difference between “I’m sorry that you feel bad” and “I’m sorry that I hurt you.” The first is condolences; the second is an apology. Some people offer condolences in order to seem like they’re apologizing without actually doing so, which is a problem.

There’s also a difference between expressing regret for doing something inadvertent and expressing an apology for doing something thoughtless or harmful. For example, if the reason he’s late for dinner is that the car broke down, he might say “I regret that car troubles meant that dinner was ruined.” That’s an acknowledgement that circumstances beyond his control led to unfortunate consequences. But if it was something that he could reasonably control, like remembering to call when running late, that deserves an apology.

Some questions to consider: did he genuinely mean it when he apologized? Did he express condolences or regret when I needed an apology? Can we be more clear about whether he was responsible for what happened?

Step 4: acceptance

Here’s where we come back to you. Assuming that it was a situation that warranted it, can you truly accept his apology? Do you feel heard? Did he fully recognize the impact of his actions? And do you trust that he meant it when they said he was sorry? If the answer is yes, then tell him. Try saying, “I accept your apology.” He needs to hear that just as much as you needed to hear him say that he knows what he did wrong. If you don’t mean it, don’t say it.

There are plenty of reasons you might not be ready to accept his apology. You might realize that there’s another piece he needs to know about and apologize for. That’s fine. You can tell him something like, “I just noticed that there’s something else bothering me.” Then, go back to step one and go through it again. With practice, this will get a lot easier. But don’t accept an apology until it feels complete.

Another reason it can be hard to accept an apology is past wounds. If you grew up in a family in which meaningless apologies were offered (like if behaviors didn’t change or if you never got a chance to tell anyone about the hurt), it can take a lot of practice. Try doing this with smaller things, simply to get the experience of following the steps and build some emotional muscle memory. Try a few different ways to phrase things. Role play it a few times with each other and look for the places you get stuck. Don’t save this for the big stuff- take it for a test drive with the smaller things so you can both gain some confidence in your ability to follow this format.

You might need some time to sit with the hurt and sort out which parts of it are current and which parts of it are holdovers from the past. Asking someone to apologize for things they didn’t do doesn’t work, but telling them why you have some sensitivity there can help them be extra careful. If he doesn’t know that you have a bruise on your arm, he might accidentally hurt you when he gives you a hug. Having that info makes a big difference. Similarly, if you have old emotions that get triggered by something he did, you might feel more hurt than someone else would in similar circumstances.  The more clarity you have around how much your past experiences make you sensitive, the more you can create accountability without blaming. And of course, if he continues to hurt you because he doesn’t give attention to that bruise, that’s something else he needs to apologize for. You get to ask for extra care and gentleness around triggers.

Some questions to sit with: is there anything that I’m holding on to? Are there resentments forming? Do we need to go back to step one? Or do I feel ready to truly accept his apology and move forward? Are there old feelings coming up for me around this? And if so, what do I need to tell him about that so we can create the safety I need?

Step 5: amends

The best way for someone to demonstrate that they mean it when they apologize is to make amends and change their behavior. Amends are how we repair the damage that we’ve caused. For the person who forgot about dinner, they might buy some takeout or offer to cook dinner the next night. For the person who accidentally pressed on a bruise, they might simply commit to not hugging in that way or to letting the other person initiate the hug.

I find that amends are most effective when both people come up with the plan. It might be easy for your boyfriend to jump to conclusions about what you need and offer something. In some situations, he might even demand that the offer be accepted. But deciding what amends will happen needs to be a collaborative process because that shows the willingness to engage with what the wounded person needs. Irrelevant amends simply don’t work.

On the other hand, while you definitely get to state your needs and desires, this isn’t about you making demands. You might want something that he isn’t in a position to offer, for example. Just as you deserve to have input on what would be appropriate amends, so does he.

That’s why amends have to come last. The hurt feelings need to have their space, you need to have confidence that he understands what he did, and he needs to know that you’ve accepted his apology. Otherwise, it’s more difficult for you each to trust that the other is coming to this step with an open heart.

That doesn’t mean that the hurt suddenly goes away. It might, but it can also take a while to release its hold. In part, that’s because our emotions are both the cause and result of a bunch of different chemicals in our bloodstreams. It can take some time for your body to digest them, and in the meantime, the feelings can linger. That’s fine, unless it hinders your ability to discuss amends. In that case, try saying something like, “I’m so glad we’re moving forward. I need some time before I’ll be able to work out the details. Can we talk about this in 15 minutes/tomorrow morning/etc.?” Make sure you put a timeframe on it so that he’s not left hanging, and make sure you follow up within that time.

In addition to taking steps to heal whatever hurt has happened, part of amends might include your boyfriend changing how he acts. That can be a difficult thing to do, especially if the behavior was the result of a habit. It takes a lot of intention, attention, and effort to find new ways to move through the world. His willingness to follow through on that is part the proof that the apology was genuine. At the same time, can you make room for his learning curve?

Some questions to explore: what would help me feel better about this situation? What do I need to ask for, and what room do I have for his needs? Is this a one-time thing or is there a larger pattern that needs to be addressed? Am I ready to collaborate with him to come up with the next steps? And can we be realistic about what we’re trying to change?

What next?

With all of these steps, it’s easy to see things we can get off course. And when that happens, resentment can start to form. Unfortunately, resentment will kill a relationship faster than anything else. That’s why it’s important to include all the ingredients to an effective apology.

But if the two of you have taken these steps and the hurt feelings are still present for you, that’s a good time to explore what you need to support and heal them. I’m a big fan of Pema Chodron’s work, especially Getting Unstuck and Don’t Bite the Hook: Finding Freedom from Anger, Resentment, and Other Destructive Emotions. I find her teachings really valuable and straightforward, with lots of incredibly useful advice and insight.

I’ve also found somatic work such as somatic psychotherapy to be really effective. Talking with a therapist can have a lot of benefit, but at some point, we need to feel into our emotions in order to sort them out and it’s easy to focus so much on the words that we dodge how we feel. If you work with a therapist and think that might be a pattern for you, bring that up in a session. See if you and your therapist can shift some of the focus away from the words and onto the emotions.

A lot of people have had success with modalities such as EMDR. It seems to help them create new ways to respond to their emotions so they can move forward. But be sure to do it with someone who is very well-trained and experienced. From what I hear, it’s easy to do it wrong.

Learning to feel upset while also working through things can be challenging. In some ways, it’s much simpler to either pretend everything is ok or to let the hurt feelings take over. But the more room you can make for how you feel without letting it take over the conversation, the more flexibility you’ll have to make things with your boyfriend work. I hope that being able to break apologies down into smaller steps makes it easier to figure out where the emotions come from and gives you more room to create the connection that the two of you are looking for.