What is an Apology? A Thoughtful Take on the Meaning of “Sorry”

I say “I’m sorry” like it’s going out of style. I apologise for the way I look. I apologise for the noise that my boys make when we’re eating dinner at Panera. I say “sorry” before I start speaking sometimes…for no apparent reason. I even apologize for asking simple questions like, “where’s the bathroom?” “Sorry, ma’am, can you please tell me where the bathroom is?” How dare you?! Find it on your own!

So today I want to talk about what purpose the word ‘sorry’ (as an apology) is supposed to serve, and how I’m learning to use it correctly in my relationships.

If you’re like me, ‘sorry’ is used as an easy out. It somehow pacifies your feelings of guilt, even in insignificant circumstances. I say it when it has no meaning, but I struggle to apologize when I really should.

A genuine apology is intended to be reparative. We apologize to preserve relationships and reputations.

When I was working with autistic teenagers we emphasized that an apology isn’t just reluctantly saying “I’m sorry” to get out of being in trouble. An apology is acknowledging that you did something wrong by accepting responsibility for the negative impact of your actions, and genuinely planning to avoid repeating the same actions in the future.

‘Sorry’ isn’t meant to convey weakness. Saying it doesn’t mean that you’re taking responsibility for everything. ‘Sorry’ is useless if it’s forced or parroted to appease someone. There really are appropriate ways to use the word. It looses it’s power when we use it incorrectly.

But, when it’s used in the appropriate context, and after thoughtful consideration of the person to whom you’re apologizing, it can be the most meaningful and loving way to heal a relationship.

When I think about apologies my brain always goes straight to marriage. There’s probably no other relationship that is as refining as marriage can be.

I know that my marriage is the relationship in my life that is tested the most. It’s the one where my pride most often gets in the way. It is where my ability to apologize is truly tested.

Early on I’m our marriage I never apologized, and neither did my husband. I think I was too afraid that if I apologized for anything it would make him more aware of my short comings. Like, if I highlighted the fact that I’d been crazy or hurtful, he’d see it more clearly. I think I assumed that if he saw everything clearly, he’d bolt.

Neither one of us was very good at communicating our needs, and we were both super needy (all humans are…all the time. I don’t know why ‘needy’ is seen as a negative thing. Maybe I’ll write a post on this later.)

We got married to be in relationship with one another, to encourage and support each other, but I was so afraid of messing it up that I completely avoided all conflict and communication. How can I support and encourage a spouse who is forced to walk on eggshells around me? (No joke, y’all. Id start crying if he even raised his eyebrows during a conversation.) This made communication nearly impossible. I’d put up walls to keep myself safe from the one person who had chosen to legally bind himself to me.

No communication was happening, so apologies definitely werent happening, and they needed to be. We eventually went to counseling (not because we were at the end of our rope, but because we realized that things were off, and we wanted to fix it before it was too late. BEFORE we resented each other.)

In counseling I learned answers so some questions about myself and my husband, and I learned that communicating doesn’t only unveil things, it also helps to repair brokenness that’s already been seen. It opens the door for apologies.

The more we practiced communicating, the more I saw it as a good thing- a great thing! Communicating about difficult stuff is never comfortable, but I think it’s necessary. Genuine apologies can’t appen in the absence of communication. If you’re not talking, and you’re wanting an apology, you probably won’t get one.

So, for the sake of this post, I want to create a scenario for you. This is not my marriage (though tiny pieces of it reflect where we’ve been and how we sometimes behave).

Bob and Susan have been married for thirteen years. They have three kids, 11, 9, and, 5. Bob works out of the home full-time, and Susan has a side job as a pampered chef representative.

Bob and Susan spend most of their time as individuals. They no longer call each other on their lunch breaks to discuss how in love they are, and their communication in general takes a backseat to the kids and their busy schedule. They are like most married couples with kids.

One evening after work Bob calls Susan and tells her that he’s going to a friend’s house to help him move a piece of furniture. Hetells her it shouldn’t take too long, and makes sure she’s ok with it before hanging up the phone. Susan tells him it’s fine.

Susan hangs up the phone, gets a plastic container out of the cabinet, and loads it with Bob’s favorite meal, chicken cordon blue. She’d been expertly stuffing chicken breasts for the last hour because it’s Bob’s favorite meal. She would rather lick a changing table than handle raw chicken, but she does it twice a month because he loves it (and she loves that he loves it.) How could he forget that tonight was chicken cordon blue night? Had he stopped loving her cooking? She’d had the world’s longest day… The kids were impossible when getting ready for school. One of them left lunch on the kitchen counter so she’d had to drive all the way back into town, and when she got there she got trapped by a hoard of angry pta mom’s. She’d been forced to sign up to bring homemade muffins to the meeting tomorrow. Homemade?! Can you believe the audacity of those PTA mom’s? Just put muffins on the sign up sheet! Who the hell cares where they were made? She’d gotten home to a million and one messages about pampered chef stuff. Did she really want to keep doing parties? It was so much work! Then she finally had time to clean the kitchen from last night’s disaster meal, and cut her finger. She made the dang homemade muffins, made few phone calls, cleaned the kitchen again, picked up the kids, helped them with homework, and made dinner. She had to make dinner. She got over everything and pulled that gooey raw chicken out of the fridge. It was therapeutic. Chicken cordon blue fixed everything. She shoved it into the oven with a sigh of relief. Her day was almost done. Bob would be home soon. He’d tell her how delicious dinner was, and everything would feel less heavy. Bob calls.

Susan and the kids eat dinner. The kids all bathe and get in bed. Bob gets home four hours later with a hint of Guinness in his breath. Susan is fuming, but she’s too tired to pick a fight. She’s silent. Bob tells her that he and his buddy had a beer after moving the dresser. She believes him. They go to bed.

Bob never knows that Susan is upset, and Susan never finds out about Bob’s difficult meeting with his boss. Layoffs are coming soon, and though Bob’s job is probably safe, he’s going to have to deliver the bad news to a few of his subordinates.

This is how they have lived for three years now. This is their norm. They’ve slowly grown apart. They definitely resent each other a little. They haven’t had a conversation that’s lasted more than five minutes in years, and no one has apologized for anything since the time that Bob forgot to take their oldest kid to his soccer game…when he was six. It was the last one of the season and Susan couldnt be there because she had to take their middle kid to the doctor for strep. They gave out participant trophies and he hadn’t gotten one because he didn’t make it to the game. He was devistated. Bob definitely apologized that night.

So years of not communicating led to years of backed up apologies. How could anyone apologize now? There’s just too much.

My husband and I try to reset things when we feel ourselves getting close to this situation. We don’t want to get so far from each other that it feels too late or too hard to fix things. But it still happens. We get busy and forget to ‘check in’. I sometimes get so busy with the boys that I don’t have a clue what’s going on in his life and vice versa.

Say “I’m sorry”! It has to start somewhere. Pick something, anything, to apologize for. There are probably a dozen things that I could apologize for at any given time.

My last apology happened far too long ago, and it was something like this, “I’m sorry I’ve been kinda absent lately. I know work must be stressful. How’s finding a new engineer going?” It sparked a conversation that led to other issues we’d been having and it really resulted in some reparations. I learned about his work stress, he listened to me talk about how difficult things had been with the kids and our house (that’s a mess from some water damage in the kitchen). We heard each other.

Apologizing doesn’t have to be complicated. It doesn’t always need to be all encompassing to be effective. It’s essentially just stepping back, letting go of pride, and showing someone that they’re important to you.

It’s too easy to lose the people who we love. They could be gone in an instant. I’m learning not to let my fear and pride get in the way of opportunities for sweet moments with friends and family (even my kids. I apologise at them a lot!)

So, try it!

Thanks for reading.

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