The Seven-Steps for a Good Apology

In a previous post, I discussed the benefits of helping couples write an impact statement as the first step in the process of apology. In this post, I want to spell out the steps for a good apology.

The process of apology is one of those essential tools every couples therapist needs in order to help couples heal from hurts. This is work of the second stage of the couples therapy treatment, after the couple has been somewhat stabilized and can find a way to self-regulate their reactivity.

The couples therapist can guide each partner in the process of designing, writing, and delivering their apology. Much of the preparation work is done in individual sessions with the guidance and input of the couples therapist.

Once the partners are in possession of the impact statement, they can begin the process of writing the apology.

Consider the following when preparing the apology process with your couples:

  • When partners have trouble with these steps, it may be because they still believe that their partners offenses are worse than their own. In my experience, the sustained erroneous belief that one partner is more to blame that the other, directly impacts the odds that the relationship will survive over time.
  • In cases on infidelity, substance abuse, or domestic violence, the partner who engaged in those behaviors should go first.
  • The therapist can request an email draft of the apology letter to ensure it does not contain disguised accusations, justifications, or incomplete descriptions. Individual sessions may be needed. Sometimes, suggested edits may suffice.

Note: In the following description of the steps, it is assumed that Partner A is writing an apology to Partner B.

1. Describe the offense/s

This is necessary so partner B knows exactly what partner A is apologizing for. A description needs to include the actual behavior. It’s fine to identify themes and then give descriptions of behavior.

2. Impact statement

This portion of the apology letter has a description of what partner B thinks is/was the effect on partner A.  It’s one of the most important precursors of the apology. It goes beyond surface statements: “You felt this way or that way”. Ideally, it includes a more global explanation of the impact on the feelings and on the life of the partner, who was hurt or negatively affected by partner A’s behavior. The more severe the offense, the more inclusive this statement needs to be. This step needs to be preceded by a thorough listening to the “hurt”, which I described in a previous blog, where partner B spelled out his/her grievances in detail, so partner A can write this apology. In what ways was the partner B affected by what partner A did? How did the offense impact partner B and why? Only after listening carefully to the partner’s description of the offenses, will each be able to describe the impact and the effect in detail.

3. Describe why partner did what he/she did

This step is not be confused with a justification of the offense or behavior. The main goal here is to ensure to partner B that partner A is well aware of the reasons for the behavior. In what ways was partner A triggered by partner B? What drove the decisions? How did partner B justify them to herself/himself? What did partner B tell himself/herself that made it possible to do what she/he did?

4. Describe why partner is interested in changing the offensive behavior

This is necessary to demonstrate an understanding that the couple is a team, that a partner can’t ignore what is important to the other partner, that a partner is recommitting to the relationship, that a partner is aware of the damage in a way that he/she wasn’t before.

5. Describe a compensatory behavior for not changing

What is the consequence if partner A where to do the offense again? What is an appropriate “penalty” or “consequence” for the offensive behavior? Partner A can say: “If I don’t change, I will impose the following penalty on myself.” This reassures partner B that partner A means business. Partner B may relax his/her vigilance and stop looking over your shoulder, and I feel more at ease. Penalties can involve small consequences such as doing the dishes three more times this week, all the way to dramatic consequences such as going back to rehab, moving out of the house, etc. In cases of severe breaches of trust or accountability issues, it is important for partner A to come up with behaviors that are going to compensate for the breach, in consultation with partner B. What are the practices, behaviors, plans, that, if implemented, will make partner B feel that things have been at least somewhat compensated? These are best to come up as a collaboration to increase compliance. The following examples are from my own practice or from cases I supervised.  “I will get on the board of a women’s shelter to compensate for hitting you when I was on drugs”.

“I will make dinner for you 3 times a week for one month for forgetting to buy the main ingredient of our meal that you were preparing for the family gathering”

“I will massage your neck every day for a week if I forget to hug you when I came in the door”.

6. Writing the apology 

Writing it out first and then reading it, or writing it and then giving to the partner has several advantages:

  • It is very difficult to think through an apology on the fly, especially if the angry partner has old grievances.
  • The partner who is writing and delivering the apology will be heard all the way through. Nobody will interrupt and start yelling at a mate when they are reading an apology.
  • Reading the apology puts partner B in a listening mode and it’s a way to avoid hostile questions along the way.
  • It is clear for partner B that partner A has given this some serious thought to these issues.

7. Engage in a repair ritual

This may be necessary in cases of severe breaches of trust or accountability issues. A ritual is a structured set of actions developed collaboratively by the therapist and couple to help with a transition from one stage of the couple to another. Rituals can be ongoing for a period of time, or may happen as a one-time event.  There are many kinds of rituals. Renewal of vows, burying rituals, burning letters rituals, and many more. It would be anything that constitutes a rite of passage from the past stage of the relationship to the next one.

Not all grievances require all seven steps. But if partners are having trouble letting go of long-time resentments, the apology letter, preceded by the impact statement, can, and often does, work wonders for many couples.