An Effective Apology Can Be About Establishing a Shared Reality

a white outline of the united States map on a pink background. The words "SORRY" in pink are imposed over the US map.
Image by jason wilson / CC BY

I’ve been in a lot of relationships at this point. Some of them were marked by good conflict resolution and others… well, they really, really weren’t.

I’ve often said to friends that a good apology means the world to me. That for me it’s often less about there never being conflict in the first place and more about being with someone who apologizes well when things go off-track.

Sometimes friends haven’t understood this. They say they find forgiveness difficult or impossible. (This matches up with research, which shows that people in general are largely unforgiving. Ugh, I find this depressing since people are also incredibly imperfect, even well-meaning ones who act in good faith.)

“The best apology is changed behavior,” they’ll insist.

And while this is actually quite true, the trouble is that human beings take a while to change their behavior — even when they intend to. We can be quite habitual, and it’s easy for a well-meaning person to slip into an old pattern.

Working on a problem can look an awful lot like not working on it in the short term. Especially if you’re biased by how much someone has hurt you to see the negative (or the neutral, and interpret it as a lack of quick-enough-progress).

In the short term, apology can serve as an important indicator that the work will actually follow.

I have basically convinced no one with this observation, even though I know it to be incredibly true. That the situations that panned out well long term versus the ones that didn’t all were marked with effective apologies.

Anyway, I was speaking with one such friend recently when I finally said something that seemed to strike home for them: An apology can be about establishing a shared reality.

When People Say Something Mean Out of Anger That They Later Take Back

I have been in more than one relationship in my life in which a partner temporarily lost their cool. And in doing so, they became cornered and defensive — and in the moment, they said something quite mean.

Something that I would never say about someone I love. Not even in anger.

I’m not saying that I’m incapable of being unkind when I’m upset. I am. But I typically don’t say things that I don’t believe.  I think it’s part of how I was raised, that I didn’t grow up in an environment where it was safe to just say random things when I was upset. As I wrote in another post:

“It’s because you say things you don’t mean sometimes,” I said.

He nodded. “When I’m angry.”

“Well, you know the kind of home I grew up in,” I said.

“Strict,” he said. “Abusive.”

I nodded. “Growing up I didn’t have the luxury of venting, saying negative things I didn’t mean. I couldn’t just say something and take it back later. Being angry wouldn’t have been an excuse. I was angry for decades, and I still had to watch what I said,” I said.

This had an interesting side effect. When someone has said ridiculously mean things to me, especially ones that are demonstrably untrue, it’s hard for me to forget that they were said. I’ll find myself wondering why my partner would be with someone that terrible. And it makes me sad.

I’ll start feeling like my partner and I don’t inhabit the same reality. And that feeling erodes intimacy.

An Apology Can Be About Establishing a Shared Reality

While I’m a person who forgives mistakes (particularly inadvertent ones), because of my history, I have a hard time putting myself in the mental state of someone who makes that particular mistake, where they say something really mean that they say later they didn’t mean.

It’s not that I’m not open to it happening. But I need to be walked through it. So that I can understand why it happened and how it isn’t actually how my partner feels about me. I need to be brought through the entire thought/feeling process (no matter how quick/knee jerk it felt on the other side).

If not, it’s hard to move past it for me. It’ll make me feel like crud for a long time.

In my first marriage, my husband would refuse to discuss what had happened in an argument after the argument was over. He was in the “just drop it” school of conflict management.

When he was done yelling, he didn’t want to talk about anything he said.

And if you asked him more than once to talk about what happened, even after a time lapse, he’d start yelling again.

This meant I had to work singlehandedly through any hurts inflicted in conflicts in my own head, try to come to an explanation on my own that was somewhat favorable, try to reassure myself and move past the conflict.

Look, it really sucked. I did my best because I wanted that relationship to work. (And it did last for a decade.) But there’s a reason it’s over.

Not only did I feel hurt from insults in the heat of the moment that were never really addressed in calmer times, I also spent months and even years worrying that he and I didn’t inhabit the same reality, because we never talked about the times when we conflicted.

Dating Someone Who Apologizes Well Is So Much Better

I’d later go on to date a number of other people who were so much better for me. One of the most palpable ways was that they apologized well.

And I’m not talking about saying, “I’m sorry,” and then suggesting we go get ice cream. (Although honestly, it’s maddening being with a person who not only never says “sorry” but barks at you to drop it when you want to talk over an argument to make sure things are okay between you.)

I’m talking about someone who’s willing to talk through where they were coming from, what they meant, where they want to go next.

What you can both learn from being in conflict in the moment.

Someone who is committed not just to getting along (some natural peacemakers) or to being right all the time (some natural fight-pickers) but who is committed to making sure that you both understand each other and that you’re inhabiting the same emotional reality.

Sure, the best apology is changed behavior… but I’d argue that it starts with someone who sincerely cares that you’re working in the same reality. A person who cares that both of you understand the other, even if you don’t like everything the other person thinks.

I’ll take that over just about any other quality any day of the week.

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Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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