- Over apologizing (OA) occurs when a partner apologizes for something they don't really need to.
- OA can serve as a passive-aggressive relational move that casts the other partner as a aggressor.
- OA affects both partners negatively as well as hurting the intimacy and empathy of the relationship.
- Lowering OA with reflection and a playful "thank you" can help maintain empathy.
Some of us rarely say it. Others say it all the time.
In a previous article, I outlined four different types of apologies to use in relationships. This article focuses on an element that is rarely addressed in relationships: overapologizing.
You might be surprised but it is possible to apologize too much. And overapologizing (OA) has damaging effects on relationships.
What is overapologizing?
Theoretically you could apologize for every little thing you do wrong to your partner. OA is expressing remorse for things that you don’t really need to say "sorry" for: “Sorry the toast isn’t ready yet." "Sorry for not putting sugar in your coffee." "Sorry for not packing more sandwiches.”
How do you know it’s overapologizing?
I’ve noticed that partners usually implicitly know when they’re overapologizing. It’s usually about small actions that really didn’t harm or upset your partner. People who OA tend to express it in a tense manner, occasionally even repeating the apology several times in the same conversation.
An apology casts partners into aggressor and the wronged. Usually the person who apologizes has done something bad (aggressor), and the receiver has been wronged (victim). But when a partner OA, an opposite dynamic is created in the relationship.
What happens when you over apologize?
Usually, OA is interpreted as a sign low self-esteem, disempowerment, or helplessness, which might be true. But OA has deeper damaging effects on the relationship.
When you OA repeatedly over time, you semiconsciously cast your partner as the aggressive, short-tempered, or controlling partner. This unwitting effect occurs because OA lowers your status and forces your partner into a superior position of either needing to forgive you or to explain why there really isn’t a need to apologize. OA becomes a passive-aggressive move casting your partner as an aggressor and you as the sufferer.
How is OA a passive-aggressive relational move?
- Over time OA become annoying and burdensome. This can cause your partner to eventually lose patience and become short or snappy with you, which could lead to a dynamic where they are “suddenly” upset (aggressor) while all you did was apologize (martyr).
- OA directs your partner’s attention to events that they otherwise wouldn’t notice or find hurtful (“sorry for not putting your mug back in its usual place”). This focus makes unimportant "offenses" upsetting, leading a partner to become more critical or unhappy.
- OA makes your partner constantly focus on relating and encouraging you, which is taxing and establishes a power dynamic in which they are on top.
- OA emphasizes how your partner is underapologizing, casting you as the benevolent, martyr-like partner.
Relational taxes of OA
Beyond the passive-aggressive dynamic that OA creates, both partners suffer from this behavior.
The overapologizer (OAer) ends up self-cast as clumsy, insensitive, weak, timid, even pathetic, or annoying. OA is exhausting and focuses the dyad’s energy on wrongs and apologies instead of investing energy in play, vitality, and creativity. Moreover, since the OAer apologizes all the time, their partner becomes inured and indifferent to their apologies and stops believing in the sincerity of their regret.
The partner of the OAer suffers, too. Being constantly apologized to leads to feelings of guilt or constant responsibility for the other. They may develop feelings of guilt that they are so demanding and taxing of their partner. Intimacy becomes burdensome and avoidance may result.
All the effects can be minimized and avoided if both partners become more conscious and reduce OA as much as possible. This doesn’t mean to avoid apologizing altogether but rather to find the right proportion of apologies.
How to stop OA
- Reflect whether you or your partner tends to OA. Have an open conversation about the frequency and nature of your apologies.
- Name it to tame it. When you find yourself beginning to OA, playfully own it: “I want to apologize, but actually that's not what I need to do right now.”
- Instead of apologizing, say “thank you,” which will shift the discourse from guilt to gratitude. “Thank you for waiting for me with dinner. I really appreciate it.”
- Replace a post-factum apology with an a priori “It’s not that important to me.” By being clear with your priorities, you can avoid OA altogether by not agreeing to requests that you know you can’t or won’t fulfill. This might create a rupture, but eventually it will lead to greater partnership and vitality.
- Ask your partner, if you’re not sure whether you should apologize. A clear and direct question can help you both initially recalibrate the OA dynamic without losing empathy and sensitivity toward each other.
- When your partner overapologizes, remain playful. Don’t get discouraged and upset or automatically forgive or encourage them. Try an unexpected, lighthearted response, such as “Yes, you indeed needed to ask for forgiveness for your grievous peccadillo” or “ I hereby officially absolve you from all your sins.”
- Apologize appropriately when you've wronged your partner. In this article, I describe the four types of apologies and how to use them efficiently in your relationship.
Remember that apologies are like salt—the right amount can make a relationship better but too little can be bland and too much can leave a bad taste in your mouth. When you do it the right way, you respect yourself and your partner at the same time.