Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: The Meaning of An Apology

On Tuesday, I blogged about different types of guilt and the impact that guilt can have on relationships. Today, we’re going to look at apologies and why they can be reparative:

Apology — The Expression of Guilt

In the interaction between partners there is a difference between feeling guilt and expressing guilt. In those cases where guilt is both a product of self-judgment (You really feel guilty) and judgment by your partner (he/she is clearly hurt by your actions or inactions), the expression of guilt is reparative.

What is an apology?

An apology is a verbal, sometimes written, expression of guilt that conveys regret, remorse or sorrow for having insulted, failed, injured or wronged the other. In the context of a couple’s relationship, an apology can be expressed in non-verbal terms (she cooks his favorite meal, he brings home the flowers) but when the violation is so serious that it threatens the safety and integrity of the bond as with infidelity — bearing witness in words becomes very important.

Why is an apology reparative?

An apology feels reparative because it not only shows care and understanding of the harm caused, it is often seen as a commitment not to repeat the violation or offense. It promises change.

Are All Apologies Sincere? Unfortunately, no.

  • “License Not to Change”: Some partners misuse apologies as a way to give lip service to the pain they have caused without any intention of changing.   In this case, an apology is used as a way to avoid self-reflection or ownership of blame. They often add insult to injury by faulting the partner for not accepting their apology.
  • “Dependent Reflex”: Some partners panic in the recognition and ownership of harm or pain caused to their partner. Their apology, however, is less about empathic concern for the other and more about their dependent need for the other i.e. fear of losing the relationship. “I don’t want to lose you, but I don’t want to change.”
  • “Reflection of Addiction”: Some partners are sincere in their apologies but so driven by an addiction that it takes precedence to the care and concern for the partner. Until they own and address the addiction, even they cannot trust their apology.

With Tiger Woods’ apology as the trigger, the questions become:

  • If you are guilty, how do you prove that your apology is sincere?
  • If you have been hurt, how do you trust that your partner’s apology is sincere?

Essentially, the answer is the same for both questions. Both partners need to recognize the apology as the first step in a process. The reduction of guilt in one and the easing of pain in the other will only happen when the words of apology are actualized in personal and couple changes in behavior and response to each other. If there is love and a mutual wish for re-commitment, there is, in a sense, a necessary leap of faith one takes in trusting an apology.

We only know that an apology is sincere when it continues to prove that it is safe and rewarding to trust each other again.

For Further Reading

Baumeister, R. F., Stillwell, A, Heatherton, T. (1994). Guilt: An Interpersonal Approach. Psychological Bulletin, Vol.115, No. 2, 243-267.