The Language of Apology

One movie quote can be held responsible for irrevocably damaging many relationships and that is the (in)famous quote from Love Story – ‘love means never having to say you’re sorry’. A convenient excuse during the sexual revolution of the 70s, not only has that dubious philosophy been heartily debunked but there is renewed impetus in learning the value of the apology within relationships between partners, families, work colleagues, cultural groups and nations – consider the apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples such as Australia witnessed on 13 February 2008.

Relationships are fraught with many and varied mistakes of judgment, misspoken words, inconsiderate acts, forgotten anniversaries – is there any wonder that at times there is insult or injury caused to loved ones for which we must apologise?

The website provides a model of how to apologise that has some really useful tips:

Step 1: Express Remorse

Every apology needs to start with two magic words: “I’m sorry,” or “I apologize.” This is essential, because these words express remorse over your actions.

Step 2: Admit Responsibility

Next, admit responsibility for your actions or behaviour, and acknowledge what you did.

Step 3: Make Amends When you make amends, you take action to make the situation right.

Step 4: Promise That it Won’t Happen Again

Within the field of couple counselling a very popular book that spoke to many people was Gary Chapman’s The Five Languages of Love which suggested there are five emotional love languages — five ways that people speak and understand emotional love:

  • words of affirmation
  • quality time
  • receiving gifts
  • acts of service
  • physical touch

For those who found his first book so helpful will be pleased to hear that he approaches the vexed area of apology in the same manner. The research of Chapman and Jennifer Thomas led them to write The Five Languages of Apology in 2006. In their book they provide insight into how we each have a ‘language of apology’. When an apology is offered but does not have the ‘desired effect of forgiveness and reconciliation’ then we must learn how to ensure that our language is tailored to the recipient of that apology.

Expressing regret (“I am sorry”), accepting responsibility (“I was wrong”), making restitution (“What can I do to make it right?”, genuinely repenting (I’ll try not to do that again”), and requesting forgiveness (“Will you please forgive me?”) are the five languages of apology to which Chapman and Thomas refer. They draw attention to the fact that their data indicates ‘three of every four couples must learn to speak an apology language different than the one they most want to hear.’ Where one person may hear most clearly the expression of regret, their partner may need to hear genuine repentance within an apology for the sense of injustice or wrong-doing to be appeased. Another couple may find that the giving of a gift satisfies the need for restitution for one partner but the other wants to truly hear the words requesting forgiveness.

Examine your own relationship. What language of apology is most satisfying to you and to your partner? Or is one of you still dwelling in the belief that love will transcend all and that there is no need to ever put much thought into saying sorry?

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