Sorry, Not Sorry: When and How (Not) to Apologize

“Sorry” is a powerful word when used sincerely, but a single word is almost never enough to completely rebuild trust. An authentic apology after an interpersonal transgression is essential for renewing a respect for boundaries, providing validation, repairing the relationship, and mending trust. 

In general, there is a scientific approach to effective apologies across contexts. But there are different types of apologies – an apology between friends is different from an apologetic press release from a celebrity. Today I’ll focus on apologies in close relationships.

In 2015, researchers from DePaul University synthesized different perspectives across relationship science into five basic components of effective apologies in close relationships:

  1. “It happened” (acknowledgment of wrongdoing)

  2. “It was my fault” (acceptance of responsibility)

  3. “I regret it” (expression of remorse)

  4. “Let me make it up to you” (offer of compensation)

  5. “It won’t happen again” (a promise not to commit the transgression in the future)

Unfortunately, many apologies fail to include all five of these necessary components for effective conflict resolution. In the best case scenario, the apologizer may feel all of these things but just fail to explicitly communicate them. In the worst case scenario, the apologizer doesn’t feel some of these things and thus shouldn’t have tried to apologize in the first place.

It can be tempting to apologize for something you don’t really mean in an attempt to repair a relationship or reduce hostility– but you better be a really good actor, because in most cases it’s worse for a relationship to receive an insincere apology than none at all. 

On the other hand, there’s another uncomfortable situation you should try to avoid – over-apologizing, or trying to apologize for something out of your control. It can make people lose respect for you, distrust future sincere apologies, and lower your own self-esteem. A good rule of thumb is: if you can’t promise the situation won’t happen again (because you don’t have direct control over it), don’t apologize. You’d be failing to uphold component #5!

So while it’s important to apologize correctly and thoroughly when appropriate, it’s also important to recognize the power of apologies to repair relationships – and to only apologize when you really mean it. We can all be more intentional with when and how we choose to apologize to our loved ones– helping us practice healthier and more complete communication along the way.