The Power of an Apology

Is there a shelf life on "I’m sorry"?

Posted Dec 16, 2019

How often must you say you are sorry to begin to earn back the trust that was lost?
Source: Tinseltown/Shutterstock

We hear of enough infidelity among celebrities to fill one gossip magazine after another. Maybe it is the nature of the work, whether it is acting or performing music, that offers some people in the public eye more opportunities to cheat than the average person. But famous or not, betrayal can be devastating to all involved.

When betrayal comes to light, trust is inevitably broken, and it can become a struggle for partners to stay together, even if they both might want to. Justin Timberlake is all too aware of this, as he was recently spotted holding hands with his Palmer co-star in a bar. Though he has since posted a statement on Instagram saying he did not cheat on his wife, Jessica Biel, he did also issue an apology to her and their children for his actions, calling them a “strong lapse in judgment.”

The question becomes, no matter what the nature of the cheating might be—whether it is emotional or seemingly superficial flirting or true sexual intimacy—is the apology enough? And how often must you say you are sorry to begin to earn back the trust that was lost?

There is no question that an apology is vital, essential, and necessary to begin the process of healing. Without it, there is no possibility of moving forward together.

A true apology should acknowledge not only what you did, but also the pain you caused your partner and the fact that you have broken the trust between you. It is the foundational piece of rebuilding, but it is just that, the beginning step. In order for it to make any sort of difference, it has to be packaged with your acceptance that you behaved badly and the clear statement that you are willing to change that behavior, and you will never do it again.

As you work toward the bond you used to share, ask your partner what they need from you to be able to trust you again. Might they want to see your emails, or your text messages, or a record of your calls? Do they want you to check in with them a few times a day?

This is a time for you to be completely transparent and let them know you have absolutely nothing to hide. For many people, seeing is believing, and you have to prove to them that they can let down their guard with you once again and know you won’t hurt them. Just telling them does not carry the power that showing them will do—you need to let them see for themselves.

Along those lines, simply saying you are sorry once is usually not enough. Some might feel they have said it, and therefore that should be sufficient. They might think their partner needs to get over it already. This simply won’t work in the face of betrayal.

Typically what happens is that your partner continues to bring up the fact that you cheated and voices their anger at you despite the fact that you already apologized. And because you might feel so bad and oftentimes guilty, you might think it is easier to dodge the anger than to engage and apologize again.

In reality, it is your continued acknowledgment of the painful betrayal and the repetition of saying you are sorry, which lets them know how much you know you hurt them, and which is essential to recovery. Sometimes, the person who has been betrayed may need to hear your apology repeatedly for many months or even longer. Doing this leaves room for their anger and enables you to validate it and relate to it.

What can also be helpful are nonverbal gestures of love, such as holding your partner's hand or rubbing his or her back. It isn’t until your partner feels cared for by you, and that you truly "get" the pain you caused them, that you may be able to stop apologizing.

And in the same way that Timberlake made a public apology because knowledge of the betrayal became widespread, it can be helpful to let others know you are sorry out of respect for your partner. Whether your apology is public or private, demonstrate empathy, and clearly speak about what you are going to do to repair the trust between you.