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The Better Way to Say 'I'm Sorry'

Start by avoiding the 3 most common mistakes.

by Deborah R. Glasofer, PhD and Lloyd I. Sederer, MD

Peter Bernik/Shutterstock
Source: Peter Bernik/Shutterstock

“Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” goes the catchphrase from the infamous 1970s novel, Love Story. If only that were true. The truth is that we will all need to say “I'm sorry” at some point—more likely, at many points—to build and maintain healthy relationships. And we each bring our own style to our “sorry." Awareness of your and your partner's styles can help you determine what work you might need to put in to master the apology moment.

The 3 Types of Poor Apologies

Consider this scenario:

Jake has an important business dinner with his boss and potential new clients. Everyone will attend with a spouse or partner, if they have one. He has asked his wife, Lucy, to join him. He stressed to her that everything must go well because he and his boss have a lot riding on this potential new business. Lucy arrives to the dinner 45 minutes late.

In general, there are three types of misguided apologies:

  • The Over-Apology. Lucy would be an over-apologizer if she was not at fault for her lateness but nevertheless proceeded to apologize profusely. Perhaps she had been given the wrong time or location for the dinner. Maybe she was late due to circumstances outside of her control such as a stalled train or a traffic accident. When a simple explanation and apology would suffice, the over-apologizer overdoes it by repeatedly apologizing during and after the event.
  • The Under-Apology. Had Lucy lost track of time and stayed at work later than she intended, not giving herself enough time to get to the dinner, she would have cooked her own goose. A substantive apology would be in order. If she had not delivered it, she would be an under-apologizer. Perhaps Lucy cannot quite see why she owes an apology. Maybe she doesn't offer one because of her preoccupation with herself—or her fear that Jake will not forgive her. The motives may be different but the result is the same.
  • The Can’t-Get-It-Right Apology. Maybe Lucy, after staying late at work, knows she owes an apology, but cannot find the right words. She might be defensive (“I’m sorry I was late, but my work is important, too”) or blame Jake (“I’m sorry, I was only late this once and you are always late.”) The can’t-get-it-right apologizer’s apology is sadly apt to escalate a conflict before a resolution can be reached.

Do you recognize yourself, or your partner, in one of these categories?

Maybe we are one type in one situation, but a different type at other times, depending on the circumstances or who else is involved? Knowing what type of apologizer you tend to be, and under what circumstances, can help you turn anger and shame into understanding and empathy. When that happens, affection warms the moment and the relationship can get back on track.

The Science of "Sorry"

Apology is an art. It is also a science. How does a successful apology work? What do we know?

We know that, in many cases, any apology is better than no apology when it comes to improving what your partner thinks of you and your relationship. In one linguistic analysis of the different elements of an apology, people were asked to read a story in which a character apologized using either some or all of the following—expressing remorse, taking responsibility, promising to keep their word in the future, and/or offering to repair the situation. The more of these elements present in the apology, the more effective it was rated to be. A good apology includes remorse, whether explicitly expressed or not. Successful apologies also leave people thinking well of the apologizer (as compared to a non-apologizer), regarding them as genuine and conscientious.

Apologies may promote forgiveness through a combination of biological and psychological processes. In an imaging study of forgiveness, participants were asked to respond to another person’s decisions while undergoing a functional brain scan (fMRI). When a person receives an apology, researchers could observe, there is increased activity in the left brain, in a neural circuit involving the frontal, temporal, and parietal regions—the same areas shown to be involved with empathy. Empathy is being able to put ourselves into another person’s shoes, to see the world as they do. Perhaps there is a link between apology and forgiveness through empathy.

We also know that forgiveness, especially in long-term intimate relationships, promotes psychological and physical well-being. Cognitive neuroscience has shown that when people forgive someone, their memories of the "offense" are more likely to be forgotten. This happens when we intentionally decide to let something fade from our mind. Thus, perhaps, the popular expression, “Forgive and forget."

Howard Galicia/Flickr/Creative Commons
Source: Howard Galicia/Flickr/Creative Commons

Getting to “forgive and forget” takes work by both partners. The exact work required, however, will depend on what types of apologizer both you and your partner are.

Dr. Glasofer is a clinical psychologist and Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychology in Psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Dr. Sederer is a psychiatrist and Adjunct Professor at the Columbia/Mailman School of Public Health. He is the author of the Psychology Today blog, "Therapy, It's More Than Just Talk" and of

The opinions expressed here are entirely our own. Neither author receives any support from any pharmaceutical or device company.