Six Steps to A World-Class Apology

Early in my graduate training, I had the opportunity to attend a lecture by someone uniquely qualified to talk about guilt and forgiveness--the late Rev. Thomas A. McGrath. Father McGrath was a clinical psychologist, Jesuit priest, professor of psychology, and former Chair of the Psychology Department at Fairfield University.

I remember walking into the lecture hall one day and seeing Father McGrath doing what he usually did before every lecture: He was methodically outlining on the chalkboard the main points of the day’s lecture. That particular day he talked to us about the steps required for an adequate apology. Over the last 28 years, I have constructed my own secular model of a “world-class apology” by building on the foundation laid by this insightful and engaging man.

In individual psychotherapy and especially marriage counseling, I am often called upon to help people apologize to a spouse (or other loved one) whom they have hurt. I see my job as one of helping couples author and enact a “script” that will lead them to a restoration of trust and commitment in their relationship. This script is like a three act play with a prologue and an epilogue:

Prologue: The Transgression

Act I: The Complaint

Act II: The Offer of Apology

Act III: The Response of Forgiveness

Epilogue: The Restoration of Trust

I have found from experience that couples appreciate this framework because they are usually engulfed in a sea of emotion-laden and disconnected details of what is happening in their relationship. The notion of a script marked by a beginning (Prologue) and an end (Epilogue) provides a conceptual context within which they can interpret the unfolding sequence of events in their unique personal drama as being similar to the universal drama of other people who have hurt, or been hurt by, a partner in an intimate relationship. The idea that couples can author their own script with the expert guidance of an experienced professional provides a much-needed sense of safety, empowerment and hope.

My involvement usually begins in Act I or Act II--some time after the “victim” has been “injured” by the “transgression” of the “perpetrator.” What I want to focus on here is the “script” for Act II: The Offer of Apology. For ease of exposition, I will describe the offer of apology in the context of marriage, but the principles are general enough to be applicable to any significant long-term relationship.

I have been able to identify six steps that need to be taken to deliver a “world-class apology” worthy of, and likely to elicit, a genuine response of forgiveness.

Step 1: Admission of Wrongdoing

The first step is to admit and describe what you did or said--or failed to say or do--that hurt your spouse:

“This is what I did and it was wrong.”

Here we need to describe as fully and accurately as we can whatever behaviors that we are apologizing for. Note that I used the plural word, “behaviors.” It is usually the case that more than one misdeed requires an apology.

Often it is an attempted “cover-up” that causes as much if not more damage than the original misdeed. Think here about the public example of President Nixon in the Watergate scandal. Also etched in our historical and public memory is President Clinton’s denial in the Lewinsky scandal: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky!”

When we are deceptive, we need to admit to that as well because that form of betrayal hurts as much as if not more than the original one. However you feel about the lack details in Clinton’s apology, he did admit to his deceptions:

"Indeed, I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong….I know that my public comments and my silence about this matter gave a false impression. I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret that."

Step 2: Acknowledgement and Acceptance of Responsibility

The second step is to acknowledge and accept responsibility for the hurt that you caused your spouse to experience. This involves inviting your spouse to help you better appreciate the short-term and long-term damage that your behavior caused:

“I want to understand what I’ve put you through. I know that my actions caused you to think _______________, feel_______________, and do__________________. I also imagine that you experienced __________________. Please tell me more about what you have been going through so I can better appreciate what I have done to hurt you. We’ll take as long as it takes for me to fully understand what you have been going through.”

The goal is not just for you to understand your spouse’s suffering. That is a first step. Equally if not more important is that your discussion leads your spouse to be thoroughly convinced that you really do understand the pain you have caused because, well, you really have taken the time to understand AND empathize AND communicate your understanding and empathy.

This process demands much more than listening to your spouse’s complaints and then passively nodding your head and saying, “I understand.” You need to be more proactive than this. You can do this by exercising three abilities exceedingly well:

  • Your cognitive ability to understand what you did and the effect this had on your spouse;

  • Your emotional ability to empathize with your spouse--to jump out of your own skin and vicariously experience what it must be like to be your spouse--making it real to yourself what your spouse has been experiencing--thinking, feeling, and doing--as a result of your behavior; and

  • Your behavioral ability to express this empathic understanding in a way that convinces your spouse that you really do understand what it must be like to be hurt the way he or she is hurting.

I have found that it is impossible to achieve forgiveness and the restoration of trust when couples try to sidestep or rush though this process.

Step 3: Apology for Hurt

The third step involves saying your are sorry, expressing your feelings of remorse, and explicitly apologizing for the hurt you caused:

“I’m very sorry for putting you through this. I feel guilty. I apologize for hurting you.”

Your spouse will be observing you to see whether you are sincerely sorry about what you did. He or she would find it hard to forgive you and ever trust you again if you displayed a lack of sincere contrition, remorse, repentance, or sorrow.

If you have dwelled on the hurt you caused (see step #2 above), you will of necessity experience feelings of regret, pangs of conscience, shame, guilt, or compunction. Openly and frankly expressing genuine feelings of remorse is essential to the goal of rekindling trust and commitment.

Step 4: Assurance It Will Never Happen Again

But the apology does not end with these few words of apology. The fourth step to a world-class apology is to promise your spouse that you will never do this again. However, a promise is rather empty and meaningless unless your spouse has compelling reasons to believe that you can and will keep your promise. It is your burden of responsibility to identify and provide your spouse with these reasons.

Running though the back (or front) of your spouse’s mind are a series of questions about your willingness and ability to keep your promise, such as:

“Why should I believe you? How could you have done this? How could you deceive me about it? How do I know that you won’t do this again? How can I ever trust you again? How can I ever trust my own judgment that you are trustworthy?”

These questions are not put to rest easily--especially when you have hurt your spouse on more than one occasion and/or you have been deceptive afterwards.

During this phase of marriage counseling, I often ask my clients to imagine that they just bought a new car. You have checked out alternative models and this one has everything you need--comfort, safety, cost of ownership, etc., so you feel confident about your decision to get this one and drive it off the dealer’s lot with an abundance of owner’s pride. On the way home, you step on the brakes as you go into a sharp turn in the road, but the brakes don’t work. Your car goes off the road into some bushes and barely misses a tree. Fortunately, although you are emotionally shaken, you are not physically hurt.

Your car is towed to the dealership. You tell them to keep it, but they apologize profusely, tell you they have fixed your car, promise you this won’t happen again, and do their best to assure you that it is safe to drive this car. You take them at their word and agree to take the car back.

A few days later, the same thing happens again. Now you are really upset. The dealer apologizes again and tries to assure you that the problem with the brakes will be fixed this time. But this time you do something different. You have a good friend, who happens to be a master mechanic, go to the dealership and observe their mechanic diagnose and fix your car. When the dealer promises you this time that your car is safe to drive, you don’t take him at his word. You instead rely on your friendly mechanic to give you his diagnosis of the problem and to tell you whether the problem has been fixed, and, bottom line, whether your car is safe to drive. Only after seeing the defective part and the replacement part are you convinced that the care is now safe to drive.

Like the mechanic, you need to assure your spouse that you have spent the time necessary to “diagnose” and “fix” whatever problems that led you hurt your spouse. Perhaps you even decide to hire a therapist to help you “re-wire” yourself so you won’t ever do something like that in the future.

Without explaining away or otherwise excusing yourself from your responsibility for the choices you made and the hurt caused by your choices, you need to understand and then explain to your spouse how you were “pre-wired” to make the hurtful choices you made. With or without professional assistance, you need to look within and ask yourself some serious questions:

“What was going on inside my head and in my life that motivated me to make the bad choices that hurt my spouse? What was I thinking and feeling at the time? What underlying beliefs and values influenced my thoughts and feelings? What changes do I need to make in my value hierarchy and my belief system? What do I need to let go of and what do I need to replace it with?

After addressing these questions, you then need to help your spouse understand the answers you have found. Above all, you need to help your spouse see that you have indeed made the necessary internal and external changes in your life so that you are no longer “pre-wired” to do what you did.

Your spouse needs to believe that you will not veer off course from your commitment to be a safe and trustworthy companion in your future journeys together.

Step 5: Atonement (Offering Amends)

The fifth step is to try to make amends by doing something to help make up for the wrong inflicted on your spouse. Here we are talking about some reparation or compensation, real or symbolic, that will objectively express the sincerity of the other steps (#1-#5) you have taken to apologize. Ways of making amends are limited only by the imagination.

Here are a few examples from my marriage counseling practice:

  • A rather even-tempered married man lost his temper one night and slapped his wife. He had never done anything like that before and felt mortified that he had done such a thing to her. He sincerely apologized and his wife forgave him. His symbolic way of offering amends was to write a check to a local shelter for female victims of domestic violence. His wife told him this was unnecessary, but he sent the check anyway. She was appropriately appreciative of his somewhat awkward efforts to make amends.

  • One woman repeatedly became emotionally abusive to her husband under the influence of alcohol. She decided to quit drinking as a way of making amends to her husband.

  • A young man, recently married, continued to hang out with his old (and still single) drinking buddies at singles bars. One night he succumbed to the flirtation of a woman and had a one night stand. His wife was devastated when she discovered what happened. Her husband delivered a “world-class apology” that included an offer of amends: He promised that he would never again hang out with his friends at these singles bars.

  • A married man had an affair with a young work associate. The organization he worked for fostered a “work-hard, play-hard” culture in which the attitude, “what they don’t know doesn’t hurt them,” was prevalent among male employees. When the infidelity was discovered, it did serious damage to this man’s relationship with his wife. His offer of amends to his wife included finding employment with a more conservative organization in a distant city. They relocated there and last I heard are doing well.

  • A married woman was caught by her husband having a a lengthy affair with her masseur. Part of their reconciliation involved her offering complete transparency to her husband: He could access her credits card statements, cell phone records, email accounts, etc. Some type of transparency is often needed to re-establish trust when a marriage is traumatized by infidelity.

Step 6: Asking for Forgiveness

The last step in Act II: The Offer of Apology is to ask your spouse for forgiveness. At this point, you must be prepared to wait until your spouse is ready to enact her reciprocal and leading role in Act III: The Response of Forgiveness.

If you have conscientiously followed steps #1 through #6, the likelihood is that your spouse will explicitly forgive you and act accordingly.

Sometimes couples have to recycle through the apology process several times until all of the emotionally-laden material is adequately processed and can be put to rest.

Sometimes people who can’t readily forgive in the face of a “world class apology” just need some more time.

Sometimes professional help is needed to uncover and resolve feelings of betrayal and issues of trust that pre-date the marriage and stem from one’s family of origin. Once whatever happened in the “there-and-then” is properly differentiated from what happened in the “here-and-now,” the act of forgiveness may begin.

But that is a topic for future discussion.

(Another topic for future discussion: The unscientific and unethical “hogwash” on forgiveness that is in so many books in the self-help section of bookstores.)

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