When your apology falls flat | Focus on the Family Australia
When your apology falls flat
By Drs. Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas
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People have different apology languages just like they have different love languages. A person may apologise, but the apology is not perceived as sincere because it's spoken in a different language.

In our years of counselling couples and families, we have encountered this challenging scenario many times:

Wife: “I would forgive him if he would just apologise.”

Husband: “I did apologise. I said I was sorry.”

Wife: “That’s not an apology.”

In the husband’s mind, he apologised; in the wife’s mind, he did not. Does this sound familiar? Have your apologies to your spouse and children fallen flat? Do the apologies of the people in your family connect with your heart and motivate you to forgive? Or do they seem to seldom apologise? What are your children learning through your words and actions about what it means to apologise?

After two years of research, we have discovered that people have different apology languages. A person may apologise sincerely, and yet, the apology is not perceived as sincere because it’s spoken in a different language. Consider these five distinct languages of apology:

Expressing regret
This language identifies with the emotions of the offended party. “I am sorry. I feel bad that my behaviour hurt you so deeply.”

Accepting responsibility
This apology acknowledges your mistake and accepts fault. “I should not have done that. There is no excuse. What I did was wrong.”

Making restitution
The main concern in this apology is rebuilding trust. “What could I do to make this right? How shall I make amends to you? How could I restore your confidence in me?”

Communicating repentance
This shows your desire to change your behaviour. Repentance doesn’t make rash promises, such as, “I promise I’ll never do it again if you will forgive me.” Instead, it says, “I do not want this to continue happening. Help me think of ways I can change my behaviour.”

Requesting forgiveness
This language expresses humility. “I realise I cannot restore this relationship alone. It will require mercy on your part. Will you please forgive me?”

Discovering their language

Each of us has a primary apology language — one that speaks more deeply to us than the other four. It is what we are waiting to hear in an apology. If we don’t hear our language, it really doesn’t sound like an apology. The same is true when we are the ones apologising. If we speak a language that does not resonate with our family members, the apology may sound hollow to them. We must express our sincerity in a language they can understand.

Apology Language Quiz
How do you discover your spouse’s and children’s primary apology languages? Ask your family member, “When you apologise to someone, what do you typically say or do? When someone apologises to you, what do you expect that person to say or do?” The answers to those two questions will likely reveal his or her primary apology language. You can also find an online assessment by visiting 5lovelanguages.com.

Learning your spouse’s and children’s apology languages will remove emotional barriers more quickly than if you simply apologise in your own language. It restores closeness and trust. And it creates a loving and safe environment where children can learn the benefits of apology.

Repairing relationship

I (Jennifer) have had many chances to apologise to my own children. For example, my 11-year-old son loves to build models. He was delighted when he found an unopened wooden model of the Wright brothers’ airplane from his father’s childhood. The plane was intricate, and I watched from a distance as my son and husband assembled pieces no bigger than matchsticks.

Before the model airplane was complete, they set it in a basket on top of the fridge for the glue to dry. Unfortunately, I could not see their “safe place” because of my short stature and continued to toss books and papers into the basket as usual.

When my son and husband discovered their model aeroplane had been reduced to pieces under the weight of my deposits in the basket, my son was heartbroken. I wanted to show him my sorrow and my love, so I put my arm around him and told him I was sorry I had crushed his treasure.

Even though I hadn’t intended to damage his project, I still needed to take responsibility. In addition to reassuring him of my love despite my carelessness, I needed to either buy him a new aeroplane or find a way to glue the pieces back together. These efforts toward repairing the model also served to repair our relationship.

You may find it difficult to speak a different apology language from your own, but becoming fluent in the languages of your spouse and children is time well invested. It has the potential to build relationship as the barriers caused by imperfections are removed and love flows freely.

During a recent conversation, a woman commented, “I’ve just discovered that, for 42 years, I’ve been apologising to my husband in the wrong language. Do you think I should change now?”

Our advice: It’s never too late to change.

A month later she shared, “I’ve been apologising in my husband’s language, and it makes a difference. He’s smiling more, and I feel closer to him.” When asked if it was worth the effort to learn to speak his apology language, she said, “Absolutely. We’re never too old to learn.”

© 2011 Drs. Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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