Do you know how to really apologize? How to apologize freely and fully? Odds are you don't, because few people are taught how. In fact, American society often teaches the opposite, that apologies should be given only begrudgingly and without taking much responsibility. The famous "mistakes were made" apologies of politicians comes to mind.
Half-hearted apologies do nothing towards mending relationships with those we love. These are the steps I have found that can help you offer an apology someone will actually want:
- LISTEN. The first step is not talking at all, it is listening. Listen closely to your partner and allow them to tell you what they are upset about, without interruption, without judgement, and without DEFENSIVENESS. You can't really apologize if you don't actually know what they are upset about.
- SAY YOU'RE SORRY. This seems simple but is the place where most people fail. Say that you're sorry... then STOP. If you say "I'm sorry but..." or "You shouldn't be upset because..." or "I didn't mean to..." or anything else, you are no longer apologizing, you are explaining, rationalizing, or even attempting to excuse. You have to say you are sorry, and mean it, unconditionally. You should be sorry your partner is hurt, even if you did it unintentionally.
- EMPATHIZE. Tell your partner you can understand why they would feel the way they do, and that from their point of view you would be hurt too. If you can't say this, if you really don't understand, then ask your partner to explain. Note this step comes AFTER you say you're sorry! Your understanding is not necessary to express regret that you hurt someone you care about.
- REMEDY. Ask what you can do to make amends. Ask for forgiveness. Ask how you can avoid this happening again in the future. Express real remorse for your actions, again, even if they were unintentional.
Let's look at a possible real-world example: your partner may ask you to pick up milk on the way home, and they may become very upset that you didn't. This can seem trite and unreasonable, and you may react badly to them being upset with you. Or, you may offer an immediate but insincere apology, or even mock them ("yes I'm the worst person ever because I forgot milk!) But when you allow them to tell you why they are upset, without defensiveness, it may turn out it's not about the milk at all, but about your partner feeling devalued or that they or their wishes are not important. This of course is probably not what you intended.
Here comes the most critical juncture: you can turn this into an argument by defending your actions and placing blame back on the other person for reacting as they did, or you can offer sincere regret, since you would never want your partner to feel devalued. So you apologize, unconditionally. You tell them that you can understand from their point of view how it could have come off that way, and that you don't want to make them feel that way again, so what could be done to avoid this in the future?
That allows problem solving. Maybe you ask for a text reminder, or maybe to be told before the drive home so you can prepare, or whatever. But now you're talking, not arguing, and you're mending a needless sore spot in the relationship.
The goal is to mend the relationship. The goal is not to make yourself look as good as possible for some "imaginary jury" somewhere. The only people suffering are you, and your partner. Why would you be stingy with your efforts to set things right?