The four ineffective apologies (and what you should say instead)

I’ve worked 40+ years in ministry. So, I know a thing or two about ineffective apologies. And, I know a thing or two about sincere apologies. Let’s talk about both types of apologies — and learn to truly apologize where necessary. 


Ineffective apology #1: The Empty Apology 

How it sounds: “I said I’m sorry. I’m sorry, ok? Can we just move on?”


How we communicate with our spouse matters. I remember how cute my sister (14-years younger than me) was as a toddler when she got in trouble for something. Through gushing tears, she wailed, “You’re not supposed to get a spanking when you say you’re sorry!” 


How ‘bout the politician, media star, or other high-profile figure who says, “I apologize if I’ve offended anyone or hurt anyone by my actions”. The “if” is huge. There’s no ownership of the damaging action.


The Empty Apology is all form and no substance. It’s what you say to someone when you have to apologize. You go through the motions, even literally saying the right words, but there’s no meaning behind it.


Here’s a good test. . . “How does the person receiving the apology feel after receiving this type of apology?”


Ineffective apology #2: The Excessive Apology

How it sounds: “I am SO sorry. I feel horrible. I’m a horrible person. Is there anything I can do to make up for this.”


Can you say “passive-aggressive behavior”? 


In theory, an apology is designed to rectify a wrong or repair a damaged relationship. This type of apology does no such thing. It simply turns the focus onto yourself rather than the harm you’ve caused the other person.


The Excessive Apology can come across as an effort to manipulate the other person into saying it’s OK. Maybe you insert so much emotion into the situation that you overlook the damage that you have caused the other person.


The same test works here. . . “How does the person receiving the apology feel after receiving this type of apology?”


Ineffective apology #3: The Incomplete Apology

How it sounds: “I’m sorry that this happened.” or “I’m sorry that you feel this way.”


Maybe this is beginning to acknowledge the pain that the person is experiencing, but it’s separating it from your role in the damage. It’s another way of shifting the responsibility for the pain onto the other person versus being responsible for the pain that you’ve caused.


Ineffective apology #4: The Denial

How it sounds: “It simply was not my fault.”


Sometimes, your ego gets the best of you and you simply don’t apologize at all. Maybe you’re so frustrated or angry that instead of apologizing, you defend, deflect, deny or self-protect. Worse yet, you grit your teeth, dig into your own worldview, and deny culpability. Because of how hard it is to admit guilt, for some of us, this is as far as we’ll ever get. But as much as it might feel strong in the moment, denial does little to repair a fractured relationship and, if anything, likely exacerbates it.


Try this question on for size. Inside EVERY disagreement, misunderstanding, or argument, there is a nugget (small or large) of truth for you to own and grow from. What is that nugget (or boulder) of truth? Imagine what it must be like to live with someone who is “always right”. More than once, in a working together environment, I’ve witnessed a spouse turn away from an encounter with their spouse and mutter, “There. . . I’m wrong AGAIN”. 


May I be brutally honest? We need a total perspective change in our marriages. As I’m writing this, I can recall a handful of very difficult conversations that I’ve had with a brother or sister in Christ in an effort to restore relationship, in which there was ZERO ownership on their part for the miscommunication, misunderstanding or relationship break. I can honestly say I brought a broken and contrite spirit to the conversation with a sincere effort to rebuild relationship and none of that was reciprocated. These grieve me to this day. Friends, reconciliation is always a 2-way street.


There’s a better way to apologize. It involves 3 very important statements, or steps. 


#1 – I was wrong

This is great therapy for you, folks! To admit your error does your heart good! Try it! Are you living with this level of honesty where you can readily admit that you’re not 100 percent right 100 percent of the time? If you’re not, you’ve created a horrible expectation for you to live up to. I learned a long time ago I cannot live up to this 100 percent accuracy standard. You don’t expect this of others, right? Nobody else expects you to be 100 percent accurate!


This is diffusing for the other person. You can sense it in their demeanor. A significant “Whew, that’s helpful for you to recognize” is a typical response.


Do you remember the old TV show “Happy Days”? One of the greatest characters was “The Fonz”, who was the epitome of cool. He could tap a vending machine and free sodas would appear. He could change music on a jukebox just by snapping his fingers. He could do seemingly anything . . . well. . . except for one thing. He couldn’t admit that he was wrong. He’d stammer, clench his fist, etc. “I’m wrrrr,” he’d say, literally unable to utter the words. From the perspective of the show, it was hilarious, but for anyone who struggles to apologize in real life, it can cause real conflict, especially in a marriage.


#2 – I am sorry

#1 is incomplete without #2. Are you genuinely contrite about your error? Are you willing to grow from this? Are you truly eager to understand how you can prevent repeating this? If not, check your spirit. Check your motivation. If this is not a sincere apology, it will ring hollow and ineffective with the other person. If you are sincere, there’s pure gold here. Don’t try to fake this, but communicate your sorrow to the other person.


A number of years ago, a close family member reflected on an intentional conversation they had had with another family member (both of whom I love dearly). They said, “I have never received an apology like that in my entire life!” This was such a time of healing for them.   


#3 – Will you forgive me?

#2 is incomplete without #3. This acknowledges the fact that YOU have inflicted damage to THEM and are asking for them to forgive you. Do not include any sense of “or else”, or conditions on their forgiveness, but it is important to communicate to them that they have a choice to make. No pressure, no manipulation, but a humble understanding that they have been hurt.


I had a dear brother come to me several years ago to mention that about 10 years earlier, he had had a one-night stand affair with a co-worker. He and his wife had worked through a lot of the pain, but there was a lingering overtone in their relationship. I asked him to prayerfully consider if he had actually given his wife this thorough apology, I was wrong, I am sorry, Will your forgive me. He was willing to go back and potentially open an old wound by doing so. A number of weeks later, he reported to me that this 3-step apology was very meaningful to his wife and they were at a much healthier place in their relationship as a result. 


It’s hard to admit our transgressions – to look someone in the eye and offer a sincere apology. But apologies are essential for repairing relationships. They show that you value the relationship and the other person’s point of view. 


Also, please don’t consider this as a prescriptive “formula” that will fix everything. This is an important component of healthy relationships and personal growth. I trust the Holy Spirit to guide you as you seek to live at peace with all people (Rom. 12:18), especially those closest to you.



On the Marriage Matters USA Blog, we talk about all things marriage. I’ll definitely explore helpful and fun ideas to strengthen your marriage. As we explore these things, let me ask you to do a few things:

  1. Give me your feedback. Is this idea helpful? Are there other ways you’ve seen this principle or idea at work in your life? Do you have suggestions for topics? Feel free to email me and let me know what your struggling with—or what you see couples struggling with—the most in your circles at home, at schools, at your church and in the community.
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At Marriage Matters USA, our vision is cultivating Christ-centered marriages that glorify God. I’d love to hear from you. You can connect here to get started. As we learn how to serve you, your marriage and build churches that champion strong marriages, ask me how to build a solid marriage ministry for your local church and community? I’m always delighted to help you and talk about how we can make marriages stronger at home, at church and in your community.


This post is from David Sheets. David is founder of Marriage Matters USA. David has been married to Bea for 41 years and they have 2 children and 6 grandchildren. He has served in church ministry for 41+ years in music, worship and marriage ministry. David is a certified facilitator of Prepare|Enrich and SYMBIS (Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts) assessments. After leading a thriving marriage ministry at McLean Bible Church in Washington DC, David and the board of directors developed a strategy to make this powerful, agile ministry available to church planters, churches and other target groups. Email David here.


Marriage Matters USA facilitates the development and growth of marriage ministries by delivering Christ-centered leadership training and providing partnership opportunities among churches to enable them to more effectively enrich marriages in their community.

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