Relationally . . . on Purpose

Mistakes & Apologies in Relationships & Opportunities for Connection

I want you to be in a thriving relationship. I know you do too! So, let’s look at what it takes to own our mistakes, and why apologizing—and doing it well—are critical elements of being in a healthy, connected, and sexy relationship.

Mistakes & Apologies in Relationships

Mistakes—for sure, we all make them. Making mistakes is part of being human and of being in relationship.

Apologies for said mistakes that injure another party or relationship? How about this second part–do we apologize to our partners or other loved ones when we’ve disrespected* them? I know I’m broad-stroking here, but I would rather confidently suggest that our respective apologies to mistakes ratio is lower than it could be. On top of having a low ratio, we probably don’t do them very well either.

*A couple of examples of ways we disrespect our partners is when we emotionally injure them such as when we disregard or minimize their points of view or abandon them emotionally in their times of need.

When we don’t apologize, or if we’re not apologizing well, we risk damaging our relationships (poor actions or lack of action over time, think rot). Relationships cannot survive–much less thrive–in spaces where a partner cannot acknowledge his/her/their mistakes.

We’ve all stepped in it. Yup, I’m talking about stepping in the shit. The icky, stinky, stick-to-your-shoes-how-do-I-get-this-off, slippery shit. Not only do we do this when we’re out walking in the park, by the lake, in our own or our neighbor’s yards, but we do this in relationships too!

The bottom line is, how do we get it off without stinking up everything else around us?

Our actions will never always be perfect. (Ooh, never / always–more on that in another post.) Thankfully, the more we practice taking responsibility for when we step in it and for subsequently offering a sincere apology as part of being in a healthy relationship, the better we’ll get at it AND the better our relationships will become.

Keep it to I’m Sorry

You’ve likely heard this kind of “apology.” You may have even adopted this same language believing that this is the language of apology.

“I’m sorry if I hurt you.”

“I’m sorry for any pain I may have caused.”

“I’m sorry, but ___________________________________.”

Even though all three of these examples start with the words I’m sorry, not one of them qualifies as an apology.

The problems in the above examples are if, may, and but (also italicized above). These words disqualify any I’m sorry. This is important: If an I’m sorry statement contains the words if, may, or but (and similar), then said statement is NOT an apology.

Here’s the thing–you’re likely apologizing because you know you goofed. And knowing we’ve goofed is a good thing. Seriously. Knowing when we’ve stepped in it is a sign that we get to take responsibility and then take corrective action. This is the golden foundation on which solid connections are built. (Not too bad when we can go from stepping in the shit to creating a golden foundation, right?!)

So, you know the reality of your having stepped in it is either that

1) Your partner informed you that you hurt them (note that their communication of pain may come in one of many forms, such as an action like walking away, crying, or not talking)


2) You have a sense of your actions (your own words or behaviors) having been not kind or not aligned with what you or your partner value in your relationship

What’s the problem in the above examples?

These words–if, may, and but–and others like them, express the presence of conditions. For example, if and may convey, “I don’t believe you” or “I don’t accept responsibility for my role” or “I don’t believe you should feel the way you say you feel” (use of “should” is a whole other post!). The use of but conveys outright “What I did to you and for what I’m ‘apologizing’–that was your fault, not mine”, the “You made me do it”, the mother of all icky, gross, heinous, disgusting, unprincipled, NEVER, EVER, E-E-E-EV-ER OK thing to believe about or say to another person.

I’ll keep this part brief since the above is a heavy note. Bottom line: Sincere, meaningful, healing apologies do not (ever) contain the words if, may, or but or others like them.

Creating Opportunity for Connection

Doing it better–with feeling and with heart

The difference between apologizing poorly (including not at all) and becoming better at apologies is the difference between feeling disconnected in a relationship and having (or being) a partner who feels heard and loved. The latter is where you get to create the golden opportunity for connection in your relationship.

We’re never not going to make mistakes. (Double negative interpretation: Being a person means we stumble, especially in our relationships, especially in our intimate ones. And as soon as we begin to believe we’re safe in sticking the landing, poor judgment will make an appearance and get the better of us. [Stay tuned for a future post on complacency / intentionality in relationships.])

How to do it differently?

Get real:

  • Own it–this is a requirement for a sincere, meaningful, and healing apology, it is the taking responsibility for our injuries to our partners (I cannot overstate the importance of owning it!)
  • Take a deep breath (can be in or outside your head, this is a pause and pauses are good for collecting our thoughts)
  • Offer the apology–be specific and sincere (e.g., “I’m sorry I hurt you by dismissing your feelings and not staying with you when you were feeling sad and needed me with you”)
  • Take another deep breath (this is another pause for slowing things down because this is good, hard relationship work you’re doing right now, and you may be new at this–or not–and slowing things down is always ok)
  • Sit with it–you’re done talking and now you’re listening, even to the silence, if that’s what’s there

Let’s break it down (owning it is hard to do)

Why is it important to own it?

Ownership of our goofs acknowledges our respective humanness in making mistakes. But, above all, it is critical in demonstrating being able to stand before our partners humbly and sincerely.

Why offer an apology rather than apologize?

Sure, apologize means to express regret for something one has done or said wrong. However, coming from a mindset of offer is to come from a place of humility and vulnerability (see also owning it, above). In offering, being humble and vulnerable with our partners helps create the opportunity to be intentional in our relationship and our relationship repairs. We’re offering because there is no guarantee that our apology will be accepted in that moment, if ever. And, wow, for sure, that is most certainly vulnerability in relationship (which creates opportunity–stay tuned for another post).

Why sit with it?

Yes, this is another hard part. To not defend or justify your original actions, to not attack your partner. Just listen. Just be present. You’re being vulnerable and you’re inviting your partner into that space of vulnerability. They may join you, they may not. No guarantee here. But again, you are making space* for and creating the opportunity for connection.

*When you hear therapist say “making room” or “making space”, think of it like this: I bet you know what it’s like when someone is all up in your face, or you’re up in theirs—there’s no room to breathe, no room to be vulnerable, no room to do anything but defend, or maybe attack. There needs to be space for opportunity to grow.

In A Nutshell

This is the hard work in relationships. These are the risks we take in love. You’ve already done the equally hard work of taking a risk on love in committing to your person. You were vulnerable then when you said, “I’m in.” Keep being in! Be vulnerable, be humble, be sincere, be kind. Create the golden opportunities for connection. Take a risk in love.

We all make mistakes in our relationships. Be sure to own said mistakes.

Then offer a sincere, meaningful, healing apology knowing that it is part of the formula for healthy, connected, and sexy relationships.

If you’re wondering if you own your goofs and whether you apologize from a place of humility and vulnerability, talk with your partner and let them know you’re looking for support from them and additional support from me.

Contact me—select my Schedule a call button below—for help in finding or refining your formula for your healthy, connected, and sexy relationship.

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Picture of JoEllen Lange, MA, LAMFT

JoEllen Lange, MA, LAMFT

JoEllen helps men connect with themselves and their identities through compassionate listening and acceptance. She provides them with tools to help them move ever closer to their intimate partners while helping them acknowledge and process their pain of previous disconnection. JoEllen also helps couples rediscover, reimagine, and redefine their connection to each other through compassionate understanding and healing. She also loves to help newly engaged or newly together couples create healthy relationship foundations by engaging them in PREPARE/ENRICH conversations.