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"What Kind of Apology Is This?!"

How to leverage the four types of "sorry" in your relationship.

Key points

  • There are four different types of apology, each with different characteristics and effects. The first is the passive-aggressive cynical "sorry".
  • Lower-case "sorry" maintains basic empathy and rapport. Capital "sorry" includes taking responsibility for one's part in the rupture.
  • The playful "soorry :)" not only includes a repair attempt but also injects play and movement.
  • Mastering the four apologies will help you increase intimacy and trust in your relationship.
Source: dimaberlinphotos/Canva
There's more than one way to apologize.
Source: dimaberlinphotos/Canva

Partners apologize (or not) all the time. Yet often the apologies don’t achieve the desired effect. Sometimes a misused apology can actually hurt the relationship more than build it. Why is that?

Because there are actually four types of apologies that might use the same word but have completely different meanings. By learning and mastering the different apologies, we can improve the intimacy, empathy, and rapport in our relationship.

The Cynical “Sorry!”

“Sorry that I didn’t call you, I was just busy with your kids…”

This "sorry" is not an apology but rather a passive-aggressive jab at your partner. It is used in a dismissive way to either get your partner off your chest or to indirectly express your frustration or anger. Its delivery is usually more sarcastic, martyly, or insincere.

Too much cynical "sorry" will actually increase the aggression and defensiveness in your relationship. It creates a dynamic that is less generous, less open, less empathic.

The Lower-Case “Sorry”

“I’m sorry you waited for me for two hours.”

This is the empathic "sorry", where you recognize and validate the pain your partner felt (whether directly or indirectly by your actions). This "sorry" comes from a sincere place and builds rapport and intimacy. Lower-case "sorry" is helpful for little ruptures, where you want to join your partner’s experience empathically.

Too many lower-case "sorry"s over time become unreliable and fake. Lower-case "sorry" emphasizes your partner’s pain but not your own responsibility. If you keep apologizing but don’t actually change your hurtful behavior, then your partner will feel that you’re placating them and not really taking responsibility. This will result in more suspicion and distance in the dyad.

The Capital “Sorry”

“I’m sorry for breaking your favorite mug. I shouldn’t have taken it outside with the kids. I wasn’t thinking about you at all and only focused on my comfort.”

This apology includes self-confrontation, where you take responsibility over your contribution to the dynamic. In this apology you’re not only empathizing with how your partner felt but also reflecting on and seeing where you did them wrong. Such responsibility is called "owning your shadow," owning up to your shortcomings and faults without deflection, attack, or defensiveness. Such an admission is not only the opposite of gaslighting but it models to your partner what personal accountability and self-development look like. To read more about how to own more of your shadow click here.

Excessive use of capital "sorry" can become heavy and overly self-effacing. It can drain the play and make every rupture heavier, demanding deep reflection and discussion, which is sometimes overkill.

Playful “Soorry :)

“I forgot to also get you a glass of wine, my dear, Soorry :)

This last "sorry" is essentially a playful repair attempt to not only apologize but also to inject the situation with some playfulness. It signals to your partner that you didn’t mean any harm and want to stay close and good-natured. This is a tricky apology because it has to be sincere enough that your partner believes you yet also playful enough to lighten the mood.

Overdoing the playful "Soorry :)" can seem mocking or belittling, with your partner feeling you’re not taking their pain seriously.

How to Master the Four Types of Sorry

Once you have awareness of the different types of "sorry", you can start using them consciously in your relationship and enjoy the benefits of mastering apologies.

First, share this article with your partner and clarify the four types of "sorry" so you both can enjoy a more nuanced apology dynamic. Reflect what type of "sorry" each of you uses most. Then start to incorporate more types of "sorry" depending on the situation.

Here some best practices of the four types of apologies:

  • Minimize the cynical "sorry" as much as possible. It hurts your relationship. Better not to apologize at all than offer a fake or passive-aggressive apology.
  • Use lower-case "sorry" for the little disputes.
  • For more serious ruptures, take a couple of moments, reflect on your contribution to the situation, and only then offer a earnest capital "sorry".
  • As a general rule aim for more capital "sorry"s, which creates an atmosphere of personal responsibility in the dyad. Following the captial "sorry" use the lower-case "sorry", which creates and maintains basic empathy. Only after you mastered those two apologies, start exploring the playful "soorry :)," which requires more play and trust. Read more about how to inject more play into your communication here.

When you are receiving an apology from your partner, stay curious, empathic, and generous.

  • If they offer a cynical "sorry," instead of taking offense, ask them what they actually mean.
  • When then offer a lower-case "sorry", thank them for seeing you.
  • When they offer a capital "sorry", thank them for owning their shadow and resist the temptation to grill, lecture, or use their apology as an opportunity to show how wrong they were.
  • When they offer a playful "soorry :)," go toward their bid with playfulness.

It’s never too late to apologize.

The question is which "sorry" will it be.

More from Assael Romanelli Ph.D.
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