Sure, we all want to walk through life with a confident swagger. Yet there are times when we do things we regret, like saying something hurtful in the heat of the moment or making a bad judgment call. We’re human, and it happens. But if my dating experiences have taught me anything, it’s that how you say sorry can either be the end of an argument or the start of a new one. A genuine mea culpa—the kind where you dig deep and really mean it—resolves tensions, while a curt, sarcastic one is like a slap in the face (especially if it involves an eye roll). All relationships are complicated, but learning to apologize sincerely and with intention is what brings you closer and makes you stronger as a couple. Here are some things to keep in mind.
Remember, we’re all wired differently.
Unless you’ve had years of therapy to relearn some life skills (if so, kudos!), most of our apology styles come from childhood. Some people grew up saying “I’m sorry” the second the storm hit. Others only uttered it after days of contemplation. In my family, we usually dealt with conflict by having a good fight, then a good laugh and dropping it—not unhealthy, but not particularly deep, either. It wasn’t until I dated a talk-it-out kind of guy that I learned to reflect on what had transpired, what was beneath the muck. It took some patience on his part and maturity on mine, but in time we found our sweet spot. Recognize that apologizing is an emotional muscle that needs to be exercised and developed over time—and that it gets easier as you go along. This can help the two of you stay calm in the face of big feelings.
Know what you’re apologizing for.
There are cute little sorry-I-ate-your-Kind-bar apologies. Then there are the more complex, brutal ones, like if you flirted with someone who was not your significant other. More than once. It’s worth considering: Why did you feel the need to turn elsewhere for attention and affection? If you don’t address the root of the issue, you can’t formulate an effective apology and allow both of you to begin healing. The upside is that this is a great excuse for self-reflection and growth. Furthermore, when you own up to the truth, such as your emotional or sexual needs not being fulfilled, you’re much more likely to be heard and find a way forward together.
Don’t apologize obsessively.
If the original apology comes from the heart, once should be enough. And if that doesn’t satisfy your partner, the issue might be with him or her. Alternatively, if you’re being apologized to in a meaningful way, let the words sink in, and for your own sake, don’t drag it out. If it feels phoned in? Go for a run, wait until things calm down, then try a little teamwork talk. Start with something like, “You know, I’m still upset. Can we work together to find a better resolution?”
Go easy on yourself.
Listen, we all screw up. We say stupid things. We make huge, indefensible mistakes. In the lighter scenarios—like that missing Kind bar—one option is to throw away the words and apologize through actions, like a surprise home-cooked meal. A love note slipped inside your partner’s gym bag. Or even extra special sex. Just make sure what’s NBD to you is also NBD to him or her. Then, work on handling whatever comes next…one glorious mistake at a time.