Do you need to be forgiven, but don’t know how to make a sincere apology that actually inspires your partner to forgive you?
Perhaps the trust in your relationship has been eroded by feelings of betrayal, hurt or resentment as a result of what you did?
The good news is that researchers have studied forgiveness and discovered a way to apologize that inspires forgiveness and restores trust after a betrayal.
New research tells us that there is much more to forgiveness than the ubiquitous “I’m sorry.”
It doesn’t matter if you did something big (like cheating) or something small (like forgetting your anniversary dinner date).
What matters is how your partner felt when you did what you did, and what that means now about their ability to trust you and feel safe around you.
If you don’t apologize effectively, your partner’s emotional wounds will fester until resentment sets in and drives an immovable wedge between you both.
THE ONLY KIND OF APOLOGY THAT WORKS
The only kind of sincere apology that works is the kind that:
- helps your partner heal their hurt feelings,
- inspires them to forgive you, and
- restores trust between you both.
Anything less is a waste of time because until your partner’s hurt is healed they are not going to feel safe enough to open up to you again.
THE NEW SCIENCE OF FORGIVENESS
The more I’ve studied forgiveness and experimented with it in my marriage, the more convinced I’ve become of this:
Understanding your partner’s fear is crucial to restoring broken trust.
Something most couple’s therapists don’t realize is that the anger and resentment felt after a betrayal of trust usually covers up a more vulnerable emotion:
- the fear that the one person we count on to have our back (that’s you), doesn’t.
- the fear that the one person we hoped would accept us exactly as we are, thinks we’re not enough.
- the fear that the one person we dreamed would stick around is going to abandon us.
- the fear that the one person we trust to take care of us when we can’t, won’t.
Did you notice the common thread linking all of these fears together?
SUPPORT and PROTECTION.
You could think of each of these fears as some version of “I’m afraid that I can’t count on you to support me and protect me.”
Until you soothe these fears in your partner, real and meaningful forgiveness will not happen.
Because each of the of these fears is coded in your partner’s brain (in their amygdala) as a possible survival threat.
If you were a bushman and your partner didn’t have your back, you (and your children) could be eaten by a lion and quite literally die.
If you were a bushman and your partner didn’t support and protect you when you were sick, you might easily die (and so might your offspring without you there to feed them).
Our brains have evolved to ensure our survival. That’s why these ‘support and protection’ fears are unconsciously coded as survival threats in all of us.
And as long as your partner perceives you as a possible threat to their survival, they’ll feel unsafe around you. They may not even know why they feel unsafe around you.
Then, instead of opening up, their protective walls will stay firmly erected around their heart, keeping it off limits to you.
For your apology to be effective, it has to move your partner’s unconscious perception of you from the ‘threat’ category to the ‘safe’ category.
WHY “I’M SORRY” DOESN’T WORK
Let’s say, for example, that you forget your wedding anniversary dinner…
…and let’s assume that this incident is a huge betrayal of trust that your partner has been unable to forgive.
Since that night, things haven’t been the same between the two of you.
That dinner represents a celebration of your commitment to each other.
Unconsciously, that dinner is the annual proof your partner needs to know that you love and care for them.
That dinner means everything because that dinner reassures them that you still care.
So, when you stood them up (perhaps because an emergency happened at work), it was a BIG deal.
They feel angry and betrayed...
And beneath their anger, they may be hiding a fear that you don’t care about them.
Judith Herman, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says that traumatic wounds are especially severe when they involve a “violation of human connection.”
How could forgetting a dinner be a violation of human connection?
Because that dinner represented proof of your spouse’s importance to you – and you forgot. Of course, you didn’t forget intentionally, but that is irrelevant.
Beneath their surface disappointment, perhaps your partner feels abandoned – their sense of emotional safety shattered.
How can they trust you to put them first (a demonstration of you having their back) when it really counts if you can’t even remember a simple anniversary dinner?
They can’t – at least not until you apologize in a way that heals their hurt and restores their trust in you.
Regularly, I hear my clients attempting to apologize with something like this:
“I said I’m sorry, OK!!! How many times
do I have to say it for you to believe me???”
Of course, this kind of apology isn't even remotely effective…
This is partly because saying “I’m sorry!” without saying what you’re sorry for is all about you, not about your partner.
Saying “I’m sorry!” can be interpreted as a selfish act, said to get your partner to calm down without you having to take responsibility for what you’ve done.
At the very least, your apology should be about your partner, not you.
How do you turn a selfish apology into an apology about your partner?
First, you identify what you did that you regret having done. Then, you apologize for the impact your actions had on your partner.
e.g.“Honey, I’m sorry for having hurt you.”
Until you acknowledge the negative impact that you’ve had on them (in the above example it’s hurting them), your spouse won’t feel like you really care or understand the depth of their pain.
Their amygdala (the part of their brain responsible for the fight/flight/freeze response) literally will not let its guard down until you demonstrate that you are safe to be around.
If your partner’s amygdala could speak, it might say,
“If you can’t understand my pain, you don’t understand how you’ve hurt me and I can’t trust that you won’t hurt me again. To protect myself from more hurt, I won’t allow you close to me.”
It is critically important for you to remember that this ‘declaration’ is unconscious for your spouse. It’s not like they are intentionally trying to punish you, drag things out or hang onto their resentment.
THE LITTLE KNOWN SECRET TO INSPIRING FORGIVENESS AND REBUILDING BROKEN TRUST
When we feel betrayed by our partner, the pain hurts so much that it is easier to shut down and protect ourselves than to open up and risk feeling such intense pain again.
Building protective walls around our heart is understandable but puts us in a double bind.
On the one hand, it keeps us safe, but on the other hand, it keeps us separate from the person we most want to be close to.
But as far as their amygdala is concerned, the loneliness of being separate is preferable to risking being hurt again.
We may get to the point where we’re able to forgive our spouse for the hurt they have caused us, but forgiving them is often more to end our own suffering than an indication that we have healed.
“I forgive you” often really means “I have chosen to stop suffering about this issue.”
“I forgive you” does not mean
“I trust you and want you close again.”
Being forgiven and restoring broken trust are two completely different steps on the road to healing.
Forgiveness is a conscious choice.
Trusting (again) is not a choice. It’s a process that’s unconscious to us.
Said another way, we have control over who we choose to forgive. We don’t have much control over who we trust.
Trust just is or isn’t.
And until you restore the broken trust between you, your partner might forgive you, but they are not going to want to be close to you… and they are definitely not going to want to be intimate with you – physically or emotionally.
The only way your partner can trust you again is with your help.
Because trust is an unconscious process (unlike forgiveness), it’s much harder for the injured partner to just choose to trust.
Trust is earned and that’s why it is such a valuable currency.
Trust is the currency of love.
So, how do you earn back your partner’s trust?
You demonstrate that you understand their pain and that their pain hurts you.
Helping your partner trust you again is your responsibility.
HOW TO APOLOGIZE SO THAT YOU ARE FORGIVEN
How can you demonstrate that you understand your partner’s pain and that their pain hurts you?
You have to be able to describe their pain from their perspective and speak fluently about their hurt while standing in their emotional shoes.
Try this thought experiment: Have you ever watched a TED talk? If not, it’s an 18-minute presentation given by an expert in their field at the annual TED conference.
When I was invited to give a TEDx talk, I was told that I had 18 minutes to give the greatest talk of my life and that it would be on YouTube for eternity.
No pressure, right?
Now, imagine that your injured spouse has been asked to give a TED talk about his/her pain – the same pain that you helped cause by betraying them.
Just like I did, imagine that your spouse spends months preparing their TED talk about their pain.
Unfortunately, the day before their presentation, your spouse falls sick and is unable to deliver their talk. They ask you to stand in for them and present their talk for them at the TED conference in front of thousands of people.
What would you do if you only had 24 hours to prepare for this presentation?
You’d interview your spouse to discover every last detail of their pain and then you’d take a deep breath and go on stage the next day to represent your spouse as accurately as possible, right?
Of course, you would.
Well, that’s exactly what you have to do if you want your spouse to trust you again.
You have to interview them about their pain, and then you tell your partner’s painful story back to them from their point of view so that they know in their bones that you understand them.
The way to get this right is to allow yourself to actually FEEL their pain as if it were your pain when you’re telling their story.
Then, and only then, will the unconscious walls around their heart come crashing down.
That’s how trust is restored.
What follows is a step-by-step forgiveness process that research studies have proven to work over and over again.
In a scientific study, EVERY couple who were able to do this (with one significant injury) healed their relationship, forgave their partner and increased trust between them… and were still in that place 3 years later.
The following 6 steps are an adaption of Dr. Susan Johnson’s original process, simplified so that you can get the gist of it without needing to read an entire book.
HOW TO APOLOGIZE: 6 STEPS TO LASTING FORGIVENESS.
STEP 1: DISCOVER YOUR PARTNER’S EXPERIENCE
Before you begin the conversation, connect with your partner first. Reassure them that your intention is to be available, vulnerable and engaged in the conversation.
Research shows that in order for your partner to forgive you, they need to know that you a) understand their pain and b) take it seriously. Until they feel this in their bones, they won’t be able to trust that you won’t repeat your hurtful actions.
Assuming you are the injuring partner, you’re going to ask your partner about the pain or hurt that you have caused them.
This is the part where you prepare to give your partner’s TED talk. It’s kind of like an interview – not a job interview, but the kind of interview where you’re trying to gather information from an expert.
In this case, your partner is the expert and your intention is to gather emotional information so that you can fully understand their pain and allow it to deeply impact you.
Ask them questions about what your hurtful actions meant to them about the safety of your bond.
Demonstrate to your partner that you are emotionally available by holding their hand reassuringly and listening attentively while they share their hurt.
Be patient, curious to learn, and listen attentively.
Keep the focus of your attention on them so that you can step into their shoes and truly grasp what it was like to be them during this experience.
While your partner is sharing, show them that their pain hurts you. This could happen with words, tears, touch or any other means of expression, but it cannot be faked.
In order to get this part right, you have to open your heart and allow your partner’s pain to move you.
During this conversation, the biggest mistake you can make is trying to defend your actions or correct any inconsistencies in their story.
If it sounds like they are blaming you, they probably are. They are not trying to attack or hurt you. They’re trying to share their own hurt and pain, so don’t take it personally.
Just listen curiously to their emotional experience and allow it to sink in.
STEP 2: DEMONSTRATE THAT YOU UNDERSTAND AND FEEL THEIR PAIN
Now, you’re going to tell your partner’s painful story back to them from their point of view. This is where you’re delivering their TED talk back to them.
Your intention is to demonstrate that you:
- understand their pain and
- are hurt by their pain.
Read that sentence again.
Demonstrating your own pain at having hurt your partner shows them that you…
- care about their pain,
- understand the impact it has had on them and
- are therefore less likely to repeat your hurtful actions in the future.
Make sure that you stick to what they have told you about how they felt, what they experienced and what it meant to them.
Remember, you’re telling their story, not yours.
Sprinkling in a healthy dose of accountability can work wonders here, e.g. “You're right, I did do that.”
STEP 3: EXPRESS YOUR REMORSE
Once you’re done, only then is it time to express your sadness, and remorse or regret for your actions.
Share why you’re remorseful so that they don’t just think you’re paying lip service.
Don’t rush this part. Take your time.
HINT: If you’re authentically remorseful, it’s probably because you care for and love your partner and would never want to see them hurt. That’s why you are feeling remorse at having hurt them. Let them know that.
Then (and only then), say something along these lines: “I am so sorry that I’ve hurt you. Deeply sorry.”
Whatever you do, don’t say “I apologize” or “I want to apologize for.”
Those words are too formal and distance you from the impact you’ve had on your partner. Crooked corporations apologize like that and don’t mean it.
Loving partners say “I’m so sorry for X” (where X is something specific that you've done or not done).
And loving partners mean it when they say it.
For bonus points, let your partner know that you are committed to doing whatever needs to be done to make things right with them.
STEP 4: YOUR SIDE OF THE STORY
First, it’s critical that you ask permission to share your side of the story. Without it, they won’t be open to hearing your side.
Reassure your partner that you will not be defending your actions, denying responsibility or be blaming them.
Once you have permission, share your experience of the incident.
Absolutely no justifying, defending or covert blaming allowed here. If you do, you’ll undo all the good you’ve done in the previous steps.
How do you share your side without justifying, defending or covert blaming?
Because actions are driven by emotions, you must share the softer feelings (e.g. sadness, shame, loneliness, fear, hurt, etc) that drove you to do what you did.
Sharing your vulnerable feelings allows your partner to make sense of your actions and moves their perception of what you did from “crazy and unpredictable” to “understandable and predictable.”
And that’s a good thing, because safety is not the absence of danger. It’s the presence of predictability.
Remember, you’re not explaining your motives to get yourself off the hook. You’re explaining your motives so that your partner can make sense of why you did what you did and finally feel safe around you.
Be vulnerable and use as many emotions as possible.
TIP: Emotions are only ever one word. For example: scared, hurt, sad, ashamed. Every time you say “I felt like…”, you’re not sharing an emotion and you’re about to drive a wedge between the two of you.
STEP 5: MEET THE NEED THAT WENT UNMET
Finally, ask your partner what they most needed from you during the moment the “betrayal” occurred. Then, give them that thing now.
If they say “reassurance”, your job is to give them that reassurance in the present moment. This demonstrates to them that you care now.
According to Dr. Susan Johnson, this is a kind of re-enactment of the original injury but with a different ending.
STEP 6: ASK FOR FORGIVENESS
Finally, you’re going to formally ask your partner for forgiveness by saying these words: “Please will you forgive me?”
Asking for forgiveness is an admission of guilt and evidence that you have an authentic, heartfelt desire to repair the damage your actions have caused your partner.
The Betrayed Partner: TIPS FOR RESTORING TRUST
If you were on the receiving end of the betrayal, make sure that by the time you get to the end of this conversation, you clearly understand the real reason WHY this betrayal happened.
- What need went unmet that opened the door to the betrayal?
- What misunderstanding between you resulted in the betrayal?
- What was missing from your relationship that led to the betrayal?
Once you have the WHY, both of you can put agreements in place to make sure that it doesn't happen again.
It might be tempting to want to cling tightly to the walls that you've erected around your heart.
After all, they are keeping your heart safe, right?
Yes, they are.
And, they are also keeping you (both) stuck.
If you've been through the 6-step process above and your partner has clearly given it their all, but you're still struggling to trust, it often helps to ask yourself this question:
"In which areas of life is my partner reliably trustworthy?"
You see, nobody is untrustworthy in every area of life.
Even the chronic cheater can be trustworthy in most other areas of their life, like when it comes to bringing you coffee in the morning, or picking up the kids from school.
Focusing on where your partner is trustworthy might help you feel safer as you drop the walls around your heart.
Of course, that doesn't let your partner off the hook in any way for taking responsibility, nor does it excuse bad behavior.
After having this conversation, I recommend that you make a conscious choice to gift your partner trust, rather than make them earn it back.
Because, the alternative is to punish them, police them, control them or make them prove their trustworthiness to you.
Doing this sets up a weird power dynamic where they feel like they have to appease you and constantly prove themselves to you.
And while I understand how appealing that might sound if you're still struggling to trust, this power dynamic will undermine the sense of equality that every great partnership and team is built upon.
Usually, it will often just makes things worse between you.
Now, I'm not suggesting that you naively just forget what they have done.
Rather, I'm suggesting you gift them trust and see what they do with it.
People tend to live up to our expectations of them. Treat your partner as trustworthy and they'll likely rise to the occasion.
If they are going to betray you again, no amount of controlling or policing will stop them doing that.
Plus, if they do betray you again, at least you know that you cannot trust them based on their actual behavior, instead of some post-traumatic fear.
Then you can make an informed choice as to what to do next.
Research shows that a sincere apology that inspires forgiveness acts like emotional superglue, bonding you together and flooding you both with loving feelings.
HOW I HEALED A ONE NIGHT STAND…
A long time ago, the girl I was dating invited another man up to her hotel room for sex while attending a business conference.
Once she had him in her room, she stopped the action. She wanted to feel desired, but didn't go through with it.
She called me the next morning to tell me what had happened, how ashamed she felt and how sorry she was.
For a moment, I was furious and felt betrayed.
How could I ever trust her again?
“Never ruin an apology with an excuse.”
- Benjamin Franklin
However, she was smart and knew better than to be defensive…
Instead, she patiently listened to me express ALL my disappointment, hurt and anger until I was done and had emptied out my pain.
She stayed emotionally present with me the entire time, never once defending her actions.
When I finally felt that my pain had been heard and understood by her, a magical thing happened – I no longer felt upset with her.
I no longer felt scared or hurt – just compassion for her. It was as if her witnessing the outpouring of my feelings had somehow magically allowed my feelings to pass through me and leave.
She then broke down in tears and shared how sorry she was and how awful she felt that she had caused me so much hurt.
I could tell that she was feeling genuinely remorseful and suffering in her own pain.
She then asked me, “Baby, what do you need to feel safe again?”
I took a moment to think about it and said, “I need to feel that you still want me.”
She gently and patiently reassured me until I believed her, staying emotionally present the entire time.
By the end of the conversation, I understood that her actions meant nothing about her love for me, but were rather a reflection of her own insecurity about being wanted.
I harbored no feelings of betrayal and was able to completely let go of any resentment and hurt.
Love and gratitude slowly emerged. Over time, healing this betrayal resulted in us trusting each other more.
WITHOUT TRUST, YOUR SEX LIFE WILL BE THE FIRST CASUALTY
If the trust between you has been eroded by some kind of betrayal, don’t think that the hurt will just fade away with time.
If you don’t make an apology that results in forgiveness, you are placing your relationship at risk.
Trust that may have taken years to build can be lost in seconds.
Without unshakable trust and safety, emotional intimacy is impossible. The first symptom to appear will be the death of your sex life.
Think about it… Why would your partner want to connect intimately with someone they don’t feel safe around? They wouldn’t. Nobody wants to be close to an enemy.
Here’s a brief summary of some of the less obvious facts about forgiveness and trust.
- Forgiveness is a conscious process – a choice.
- Trust is an unconscious process. Restoring it requires you to help your partner heal their hurt.
- “I’m sorry” is not enough to restore trust.
- Restoring trust requires you (as the injuring partner) to demonstrate that you 1) take your partner’s hurt seriously, and 2) that your partner’s pain hurts you. You can’t fake this step.
For your own peace of mind and your relationship’s sake, don’t put off apologizing.
It is possible to repair the broken trust between you if you use the scientifically researched steps I outline above… and faster than you may think.
* This article is informed by the amazing research of Dr. Susan Johnson, the ideas of Werner Erhard and my own experience with forgiving and being forgiven.