Apology, schmapology: How to say you’re sorry in a way that’s meaningful to your spouse

February 26, 2019

By Isabella Markert


As young children, most of us were told “Say you’re sorry!” after we had done something wrong. We uttered our two-syllable apology and moved on, perhaps not feeling sorry at all.


Unfortunately, some adults’ apologies haven’t become much more sophisticated than this, to say nothing of actual sincerity. A poor apology can be damaging, especially in marriage. But the good news is that a sincere apology can strengthen your relationship.


For example, my husband’s morning alarm sounds like a zombie apocalypse siren. It’s loud and ugly and gets “snoozed” about four times each day. This drove me crazy last year when he had to wake up at 5 a.m. every day, and I didn’t have to wake up for another hour when he would kiss me goodbye and leave for work. His alarm would go off, and I’d be wide awake, while he would either take little naps in between hitting “snooze” or just sleeping through the several alarms he had set.


I was starting to feel resentful, so I knew it was time for us to talk. I let him know that his alarms were keeping me awake, that getting an extra hour of sleep was very important to me, and that I’d prefer to get that extra hour in the morning. Could he try to get up sooner? He agreed and apologized for causing me stress and cutting down my sleep time. He promised to be more considerate with his “snoozing” habits.


The next day, his alarm went off; he snoozed the alarm, and I fell asleep again. The next thing I knew, it was 6 o’clock. My husband had taken his phone and a blanket to the couch so he could “snooze” to his heart’s content, and I could sleep for another hour. I felt like a jerk of a wife—I hadn’t meant to kick him out!


“I don’t mind at all. Really,” he added when I looked skeptical. “You know Markerts can sleep anywhere. Plus, I really should be awake at 5:00, and this will help me literally ‘get up.’” My husband’s sincere apology helped us love each other more and better. (And just to be clear, I could have shared any number of examples where I was the one needing to apologize. It goes both ways!)

If we understand our spouse’s apology language, we can apologize in a way that is meaningful to him or her.

Apologizing to your spouse is not always as simple as it was for us in this example. But by knowing your spouse’s apology language, following the “Pause, Process, Proceed” strategy, avoiding pitfalls, and being introspective, you and your spouse can practice apologizing meaningfully and grow closer together.


Know Your Spouse’s Apology Language

You’ve probably heard of Dr. Gary Chapman’s Five Love Languages, but did you know there are five apology languages, too? Like love languages, the idea of apology languages is that there are some ways to apologize that we understand better than others. According to Dr. Chapman, the five apology languages are as follows:

  • Make restitution
  • Request forgiveness
  • Accept responsibility
  • Express regret
  • Genuinely repent

If we understand our spouse’s apology language, we can apologize in a way that is meaningful to him or her. You can take this short quiz to find out your apology language. Whether or not you agree with the idea of love or apology languages, it’s a good idea to take a look at these and see where you and your spouse differ.


Pause, Process, Proceed

When it’s time to apologize to your spouse, it can be hard to know where to start. Hannah Eaton, a licensed marriage and family therapist associate, has identified three steps for a successful apology: pause, process, and proceed.


First, pause. Acknowledge when you make a mistake and mindfully try to figure out what was the root cause of your blunder. Here, it is important to distinguish between guilt and shame. Brené Brown explains that guilt says “I did something bad,” which is a normal and healthy reaction when we make a mistake. Shame, on the other hand, says “I am bad.”


“Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change,” Brown says. Be wary of shame when you realize you’ve made a mistake.


Second, process. Make a repair attempt. Repair attempts are different for every couple, but the goal should be to understand each other better and break negative patterns.


Third, proceed. Move forward seeking harmony in your relationship.


“What are your values as a couple, and as an individual? As we build awareness of and maintain focus on our values, we are more likely to operate within their realm,” Eaton says.


Avoid Pitfalls

Have you ever fallen into one of these apology pitfalls?

  1. “I’m sorry, but . . .”
  2. “I’m sorry [that you reacted the way you did to my perfectly reasonable behavior].”
  3. “I apologize for [fill in the blank], and now I’d like you to apologize for . . .”
  4. “I’ve already apologized for that [serious mistake]. Will you let it go already?”
  5. “What I did was so terrible. I’ll never forgive myself!”

When we apologize to our spouse, we should do it because we care about him or her and want to strengthen our relationship. We shouldn’t use apologies as a backhanded way to place the blame on our spouse (as in examples 1–3), to ignore the fact that he or she is still hurt and may need additional help and healing (as in example 4), or to express that the person we really feel sorry for is ourselves (as in example 5).


Be Introspective to Make Real Change for the Future

Alex Lickerman, M.D., shared that his wife once got upset at him for burning the hamburgers he was grilling for dinner because she warned him that would happen if he didn’t clean the grill. He apologized, but she was still annoyed at him. And then he was annoyed that she was still annoyed.


He explains, “I’ve found only after the storm has passed can I ask myself why I acted badly. And that’s when I learn things about myself I really want to know. Like why I was angry at my wife for being irritated with me. Once I saw that her irritation pricked at my feelings of incompetence, I recognized that feeling incompetent wasn’t her issue, but mine. . . . I realized I can’t stop my wife from feeling irritated or disappointed or anything else she’s going to feel, . . . but I can chip away at whatever feelings of inadequacy her irritation stirs up in me.”

When we apologize to our spouse, we should do it because we care about him or her and want to strengthen our relationship.

Because we are human, there are going to be times we as spouses disappoint each other. But two things are important here: (1) we can’t change our spouse or the way he or she feels, and (2) we can change ourselves. We can use our mistakes as a time to be introspective and learn what we should focus on to become the best version of ourselves as individuals. As we improve, making our marriage stronger will come more easily and naturally.


Apologizing to your spouse can be a powerful way to strengthen your relationship. By knowing your spouse’s apology language, following “Pause, Process, Proceed,” avoiding pitfalls, and being introspective, you and your spouse can apologize in a way that helps your relationship thrive.


Isabella is a freelance writer, editor, and language educator. Isabella graduated from Brigham Young University, where she majored in English language and minored in editing. She is experienced in social media and web content and enjoys writing practical and fun pieces that make her readers’ lives better. When she’s not writing or editing, Isabella likes to play games with her husband and family, follow watercolor tutorials from Pinterest, and eat the snobbiest chocolate she can find.


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