Offering a good apology wasn’t something that came easy to me in my 20s. In my 30s, I thought I had it down. And here I was again, wishing I could take back the words I just said to my husband. Words of anger and a hefty amount of snark.
The way I saw it, I had about three options.
- Laugh and say, “Just kidding. Gotcha!”
- Pretend I didn’t say what he thought he heard. “What? You must have misunderstood me.”
- Say, “I’m sorry.”
Obviously, I chose D. None of the above. Instead of offering a good apology (if you still aren’t clear, I should have picked C), I ignored my own wrong behavior. In fact, the more I ignored it, the more I justified it in my head (But if only he …). And the more hurt my husband felt from my sharp tongue and resulting silence.
A good apology isn’t admitting defeat (so calm down already)
Saying “I’m sorry” isn’t an admission that the entire argument or situation was your fault. It’s owning the part you played.
That night, I was exhausted from staying up late the night before. Follow that with a day of work, baseball practice, dinner, and fighting two equally exhausted children to get to bed? Well, I was probably close to what you get if you wake a grizzly from hibernation.
So, when I walked out of our youngest’s room to find my husband all snug in the recliner, I snapped. I said things I shouldn’t have. And I knew that the moment they escaped my snarky lips. Then I took my grizzly-bear self and stormed out of the room as dramatically as possible.
My husband deserved a good apology. Instead, he got an angry wife for the remainder of the evening.
But the next morning, I woke up with a heavy feeling. I didn’t want to start the day like the night had ended. So I knew I had to eat some humble pie before making breakfast.
I confess, there have been plenty of times where I shook my finger at his faults while justifying my own. It feels pretty natural, huh? But we’re all responsible for our own actions. (I think I just heard my mother’s voice.) Someone can treat me unfairly, but I don’t have to return that in kind.
Proverbs 15:1 reminds me, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
My “soft answer” required a good apology. And it’s probably good to point out that a good apology doesn’t need to be lengthy or overloaded with emotion. Instead, I’ve found apologizing works best when I keep to three simple steps.
Step 1: Say “I’m sorry,” and mean it.
Mumbling an apology in anger or like a petulant child doesn’t count. If you can’t honestly say “I’m sorry,” don’t say it. The person receiving it will pick up on that in a flash. And it only deepens the hurt.
It took me a good night’s rest to be able to feel truly remorseful for the words I said in anger. Timeliness matters in a good apology, but rushing it can take the meaning away. If you find yourself going more than a day without seeing what you did wrong in a situation, seek good counsel from a trusted friend or pastor who might be able to offer a bit of perspective.
Admitting to our faults is a faith lesson we all could use a little refresher in from time to time. Because God calls us to repentance. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
That morning, when my husband had settled with a cup of coffee, I sat down across from him. I looked him in the eye and said, “I’m sorry.”
Step 2: State the “why” and ask forgiveness.
No, this isn’t your moment to let them know why you were angry in the first place (tempting, I know). Instead of bringing that up again, tell them why you are apologizing. It simply lets them know you see what you did wrong. It reinforces that “sorry.”
“I’m sorry I said what I did last night,” I told my husband. “It was mean and disrespectful. I was tired and frustrated, and I took that out on you. Please forgive me.”
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Step 3: Offer to fix it.
This goes a little beyond a simple apology. This extra step tells the person you want to fix what was broken between you so it doesn’t happen again (hopefully). Or it shows you want to start rebuilding their trust.
Often, there’s nothing you can really do to fix a situation broken by words. If only…
But that doesn’t mean you can’t try. I told my husband next time I was feeling overwhelmed, I would ask for his help instead of expecting him to read my mind. I don’t want him anxiously awaiting the sleeping grizzly to wake.
After the “I’m sorry”
If I were to add a fourth step, it’d be this: Accept forgiveness. Whether you’ve apologized for a minor flub or a catastrophic breach of trust in your marriage, when your spouse offers their forgiveness, it’s a gift. Gladly accept it with both hands.
We have a unique opportunity in these moments—reflecting the love and forgiveness God so freely gives us for others to see. Maybe your kids are seeing this play out between you and your spouse—what will they learn about loving others and a loving God from your interactions? Or maybe it’s your neighbors, another couple at church, or even your nonbelieving extended family.
Saying “I’m sorry” is a soft answer we can turn away anger with. And ultimately, a good apology isn’t ours to withhold.
“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15).
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Lisa Lakey is a writer and editor for FamilyLife. Before joining the ministry in 2017, she was a freelance writer covering parenting and Southern culture. She and her husband, Josh, have been married since 2004. Lisa and Josh live in Benton, Arkansas, with their two children, Ella and Max.