Why Does an Apology Have to Take So Long?
Saying "I'm sorry" is only one part of repairing your relationship.
Posted Dec 10, 2020
A thorough apology can take a while. Your actual statement of regret and responsibility might be really short, but it turns out that that’s only one step of the four that a good apology requires.
How frustrating! Here you’ve already tried to make things right, and it isn’t finished yet!
It’s because making amends to another person can be so important and meaningful that it’s worth taking time to do it well. Many hurts, especially old ones or major ones, require more than one brief talk to express and understand, much less to heal. How long it takes isn’t universal or predictable, which can be hard on the apologizer. But you must have the whole conversation.
Time, attention, and patience can not only restore a relationship but potentially also make it stronger. Adrienne Maree Brown, a social justice activist who writes about how to make conflict transformational rather than destructive, recommends taking more time to address hurt or conflict than our reactive customs usually allow. “Real-time is slower than social media time, where everything feels urgent. Real-time often includes periods of silence, reflection, growth, space, self-forgiveness, processing with loved ones, rest, and responsibility.”
There are four reasons why making an apology can take longer than you might think. (Yes—another four-part model!)
1. You’re not ready right away. Often you don’t know how the other person was affected by your actions because humans are just plain bad at noticing such things. It’s a natural blind spot. And if the other person is helpful enough to let you know you’ve hurt them, you’re pretty likely to feel defensive about it.
There are also a number of cultural myths that could interfere with your readiness to face the impact you’ve had on someone else: You might feel that the feedback can’t be correct because you’re a nice person, i.e., not the kind who hurts people. Or you might think you couldn’t have hurt someone because you didn’t mean to hurt them. Or you might view your actions as justified or not your fault. You might even believe that apologies are unnecessary, unseemly, and/or a sign of weakness.
Even if you are ready, sometimes the other person isn’t ready or isn’t receptive to your apology. Initially, they may be too raw or angry to talk with you about it or not yet fully aware of how they feel. In that case, you may have to try more than once. You are making an invitation for a conversation, not a demand for anything, especially forgiveness. If the other person is permanently not interested in talking with you about what happened between you, then you are out of luck—but at least it’s over.
2. Listening takes time. It’s hard to be receptive, to listen without defending yourself or trying to solve the problem. It’s especially hard to solicit and listen patiently to information that’s unpleasant and may place you in an unflattering light.
After major injuries, such as betrayals or unfaithfulness, hearing the whole experience of the hurt person can take a relatively long time. Oftentimes, before the repair is complete, some parts of the story must be heard more than once. Emotions have their own idiosyncratic arcs. In his poem “Crying,” Galway Kinnell advises the reader to cry and cry until all the tears are cried. He writes, “Happiness [hides] in the last tear.” Relief won’t come until the hurt person is ready to move on.
Although the needs of the hurt person take precedence, an extended apology can also tax your patience and self-esteem. If repairing the relationship in question is deeply important to you, you may need to build up your resilience for a longer haul than you anticipated. Self-compassion can be crucially helpful in order to sustain such courage and openness.
The question “What is enough?” arises in many extended apology efforts. The process can wear you down. Partners ask, “Shouldn’t she be past it by now?” Or “Will I ever be out of the doghouse?” Understandably, one person or the other may feel tempted to cut their losses. But in my experience, couples can get through almost anything if they stay the course with patience, perseverance, and compassion.
3. You have to provide fitting restitution. After you’ve listened to the other person’s experience and taken responsibility for your impact on them, you have to find a way to make the wrong right—which can be complicated.
In a legal context, your obligation is to make the injured party “whole,” which usually means returned to previous financial status. In a relationship, restitution usually isn’t material or not wholly so. Sometimes a symbolic replacement of an object that’s been lost or damaged is called for. Most often, though, a “do-over” is a chance to have the experience that you earlier prevented.
It’s not the obligation of the hurt person to come up with a reparative solution, but they may want a choice. Consulting them or collaborating with them can produce a result that will work to heal the hurt or make a wrong right.
4. It takes time to make lasting change. Much as individual habit change is hard, altering your habits of communication, relationship routines, and patterns of interaction is also thorny. In my experience, good intentions are rarely sufficient.
Sometimes, couples do this work together in therapy, carefully challenging old ways of being together. It takes time even to bring patterns into shared awareness, much less to establish new possibilities for your relationship. If you’ve made a significant mistake, you often have to do some soul-searching of your own, which—I’m sure this isn’t surprising at this point—takes time.
Brown, A.M. (2015). "What Is/Isn't Transformational Justice?" Adrienne Maree Brown blog, http://adriennemareebrown.net/2015/07/09/what-isisnt-transformative-justice/ .
Kinnell, G. (1980). "Crying," Mortal Acts and Mortal Words. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.