Anne Pascale Stein is a German, English and French speaking licensed mental health practitioner in Berlin and online with over a decade of experience in private practice. Her approach combines body-oriented, emotion-focused, and attachment-based methods to help with anxiety, exhaustion, depression, grief and trauma.
Last Updated on January 9, 2024 by It’s Complicated
Read on for a therapist’s take on how to apologise effectively in relationships.
Take a moment to think of the relationships in your life where you feel secure, meaning where you feel safe, seen, calm and soothed. What is it about these relationships that makes you feel comfortable and protected in them? Describe three interactions that create security and ease for you with this person. What did you discover?
Attachment theory suggests that good enough, meaning healthy, relationships consist of 30% attunement and 70% rupture and repair. According to those figures it seems very human to spend a significant amount of time in a good relationship with repairing the ruptures and conflicts that naturally occur.
Only a third of the time are we “in tune” with the other person, meaning emotionally responsive and connected, providing support, validation and understanding for the relationship to feel safe and comfortable.
This perspective may be surprising at first, but it sheds light on how vital conflicts and their resolution are in building secure relationships. Some are afraid it dangerously gives license for bad behaviour. I find it hopeful, because we all (know how to) mess up.
Since conflict will happen anyway, let’s focus on repair – which makes all the difference! In this post, we’ll explore what rupture and repair mean and the importance of how to apologise genuinely.
What is Rupture?
Rupture signifies the moments when there’s a disconnect, tension, or conflict in a relationship. This can range from disagreements to misunderstandings to hurtful words and unmet expectations. Ruptures are normal in any relationship. It’s how we handle them that matters and that makes all the difference.
What is Repair?
Repairing means fixing and healing the cracks in a relationship. It’s the crucial step in rebuilding trust and emotional connection. Consistent repair is what makes us feel secure in relationships. When there’s too much rupture without enough repair we get distant and start to lose connection.
Many of us might have grown up in environments where ruptures were mostly ignored, and repair was either absent or all about the other person feeling better. Yet it’s rarely too late for repair. Even after years, it can make a significant difference for the person who was hurt. When therapy works well, it helps to provide the repair that was missing that allows a person to heal.
Genuine repair aims to give the hurt person the sense of being safe, seen, soothed, and secure once again.
What repair in relationships looks like:
- Apologising: “I’m sorry that I …” Acknowledge the rupture and take responsibility for what you did wrong that caused harm.
- Expressing regret: “I’m sorry this happened.” Acknowledge the rupture and express genuine sadness about what happened when you don’t need to own up to wrongdoing.
- Truly listening to each other and making space for hurt feelings: Repair is about feeling heard and understood again. No quick fixes, no trying to get another person to see it your way, and no defending your viewpoint.
- Getting the relationship back on track: Repair can happen quickly and implicitly e.g. engaging in an activity that fosters connection, making the other person feel cared for and seen.
- Small acts of repair: Leaving a note, writing a text, making eye contact to convey understanding, providing soothing physical gestures that comfort the other person.
- Making amends: Taking explicit responsibility, accountability and actions to work towards what is needed for the person who got hurt to feel safe, seen, soothed and secure again.
In essence, repair in relationships is about recognising when there’s been a rupture, demonstrating empathy and accountability, and taking steps to heal and rebuild trust and connection with the other person.
Remember: Don’t promise it will never happen again. Stress responses are most likely to happen again. What you can commit to is working as hard as you can to reduce frequency and intensity of those reactions.
Why (self-)compassion is mandatory in the rupture-repair process
Under enough stress we all lose our balance and have a point of no return where we show up with behaviours that are “mean, weak or gone”, meaning excessively harsh, ineffective or psychologically absent. It’s human. Committing to (self-)compassion and understanding in those moments is not excusing those behaviours. The more we are criticised or the more we criticise ourselves, the more likely it is that we stay defensive and either ignore the rupture and don’t engage in the repair process, or we make the repair all about ourselves and not about the one who got hurt.
Receiving compassion (as well as boundaries!) from others when we are “mean, weak or gone” supports us in reconnecting with ourselves. Self-compassion also makes it more likely that we engage in repair with ourselves when we fall into stress and out of connection. This may include the decision to get help from a therapist or counsellor. And, last but not least, compassion is always a good idea when we need to get vulnerable.
How to apologise after a relationship rupture
Apologies are sometimes challenging. They might make us feel vulnerable or busy with appearing weak. Yet we all know how needed an apology sometimes is. We’ve all had experiences where it didn’t happen and have experienced what a change it made when it did happen. Engaging in repair and apologising deepens our connection in relationships. So what should a good apology look like and what should be avoided when practicing how to apologise?
What constitutes a genuine apology:
- Acknowledging and naming the wrong: A sincere apology begins with an acknowledgment of what you did wrong. It involves openly admitting your mistake without reservation.
- Demonstrating empathy: Expressing genuine empathy is crucial. Show that you understand how your actions or words affected the other person emotionally and possibly even physically.
- Expressing the desire to make amends: A good apology includes a clear expression of your commitment to making things right. It involves asking the affected party how you can compensate for your actions or words, demonstrating your willingness to take action.
Actions to avoid in an apology
- Accusations: Do not include accusations or blame directed at the person you are apologising to. Phrases like “I’m sorry, but…” have no place in a sincere apology. Blaming others sidesteps accountability for your actions.
- Self-Blame: While taking responsibility is essential, excessively blaming yourself can overshadow the person you hurt. An apology should focus on acknowledging the harm you caused rather than on your own guilt.
- Demanding an apology in return: A true apology should not be followed by an immediate demand for an apology in return. Such demands shift the focus away from your apology and come across as insincere.
In summary, rupture and repair are integral components of healthy relationships. It’s not the absence of conflict that defines a strong attachment but rather the ability to navigate and resolve ruptures effectively. A sincere apology is a powerful tool in the repair process; it demonstrates empathy, accountability, and a commitment to healing the relationship. By getting curious, understanding and embracing the importance of repair, we can foster secure attachments and restore loving connections.
Recall a moment when you needed to receive a sincere apology that never came. Don’t go into the reasons why it didn’t come, write down the factual events of that situation. Describe your emotions and physical sensations you experienced during that moment. Afterwards, take a deep breath and, using the guidelines for a “genuine apology” mentioned above, write the apology you needed to receive. Pay attention to the physical sensations that arise as you engage in both the act of writing and envisioning the reception of this sincere apology.
Sources and resources:
Ed Tronick, Claudia M. Gold, The power of discord. Why the ups and downs of relationships are the secret to building intimacy, resilience, and trust, 2021
Harriet Lerner, Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts, 2017
Hilary Jacobs Hendel, It’s not always depression. A New Theory of Listening to Your Body, Discovering Core Emotions and Reconnecting with Your Authentic Self, 2018
If you want to dive deeper and get to know more tools for effective repair conversations, try this practice from the Gottman Institute: Aftermath of a Fight Guide
Sometimes it is hard to show up with 30% of attunement. If you need support deepening connection and intimacy, try this practice from the Gottman Institute: Fondness & Admiration Guide
To dive deeper into saying sorry, listen to this two-part podcast series by Harriet Lerner / Brené Brown, I’m sorry. How to Apologize and Why It Matters
A lot information and practice about attachment theory is made available in parenting resources:
Robyn Gobbel The Baffling Behavior Show
Eran Katz The Apparently Parent Podcast
Daniel J. Siegel on the four “S” of creating secure attachment as in “Safe, Seen, Soothed and Secure”
The Circle of Security on rupture caused by “Mean, Weak, Gone” when we get defensive in relationships.
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