Your stomach turns. In the heat of the moment, you said something hurtful to your partner that you now deeply regret. You know you need to apologize, but you just can’t bring yourself to do it. If the thought of saying I’m sorry gives you pause, you’re not alone. Countless people struggle to apologize, primarily because we feel shame when we think about how we hurt someone we love, says Tracy Ross, a couples therapist based in New York City.
People often struggle to say I’m sorry because they confuse having done something wrong with having something inherently wrong with them, Ross says. They don’t want to face this feeling—even though it’s misguided—so they put off apologizing. But it’s possible, of course, to have done or said something hurtful while still being a fundamentally good person. We all say and do things we regret.
The good news? Apologizing is a skill you can cultivate. Keep reading for six steps to saying I’m sorry to your partner.
Step 1: Be sincere.
There’s nothing worse than hearing I’m sorry and knowing the other person doesn’t mean it—they simply want to bypass whatever tension has arisen in the relationship. But a true apology is one that’s sincere and well thought-out.
“You want an apology to actually carry weight and not just become a throw-away comment or conversation ender,” Ross says. “Sincere apologies are validating and help you let go and move on, but hollow apologies are just momentary filler.”
Step 2: Act quickly.
Once you realize you’ve made a mistake and need to apologize, it’s important to act quickly, says Gabrielle Usatynski, a licensed professional counselor based in Boulder, Colorado.
“Quick repair is a hallmark of successful long-term intimate relationships,” Usatynski says. “The longer you wait to clean up a mess you made with your partner, the more you threaten the well-being of your relationship.”
Step 3: Watch your words.
Word choice is incredibly important when delivering an apology. Using the wrong words can make the entire apology come across as dismissive and insincere, says Caitlin Garstkiewicz, a therapist based in Chicago.
Garstkiewicz says it’s important to use “I” versus “you” statements. For example, instead of saying, “You seem mad at me,” opt for, “I hear you saying that you feel hurt.”
“When we use ‘I,’ we are making a statement of ownership,” Garstkiewicz says. “When we use ‘you,’ it can be perceived as a displacement of responsibility and feel very dismissive to our partner.”
Garstkiewicz also recommends avoiding the words “if” and “but,” as they can also come across as dismissive. For example, saying “I’m sorry if I made you feel that way… ” or “I’m sorry, but you… ” doesn’t feel as genuine as saying, “I’m so sorry I did that and made you feel that way.”
When choosing your words, be as specific as possible. Ross recommends the following phrases to get started:
I realize I hurt you by…
I misunderstood you and…
I understand that…
I wish that I had…
In the future, I will try to…
Step 4: Consider your delivery.
Words matter, but so does body language, tone, volume and eye contact.
“A smile, soft expression and gentle tone of voice are all important cues that signal to your partner that you’re non-threatening and truly regret what you did,” Usatynski says. “Words are important, but the best words in the world will not be meaningful if they’re delivered with an angry expression, eye-rolling or a lack of sincerity.”
Usatynski says the importance of these signals reinforces the fact that apologies should always be done in person—not via text, email or phone call. “Ninety-seven percent of our communication is non-verbal,” she says. “Your partner needs to be able to see your face, your expression and your body language in order to know you are sincere.”
Step 5: Look for cues you’ve been forgiven.
When you apologize well, you’ll know it, Usatynski says. You’ll see a noticeable change in your partner’s face and body language that indicates they’re starting to relax. They might take a deep breath, smile a little, give out a sigh of relief or visibly loosen their shoulders.
Step 6: Be patient.
If you don’t notice any of the above cues following an apology, there’s a good chance your partner isn’t ready to forgive you right away. And that’s OK.
If your partner isn’t ready to forgive, you need to figure out why by asking open-ended questions. “Focus on the feelings and the emotional experience, not the content of what happened or who said what,” Ross says.
Remember that just because your partner isn’t ready to forgive you right away doesn’t mean they’re holding a grudge. “Forgiveness can’t always be immediate,” Ross says. “It has to come after some sort of process you go through together as a couple, and the timeline can vary.”
Even if you feel irritated or angered by the fact that your partner isn’t ready to forgive you, it’s crucial to not act on these impulses, Garstkiewicz says. Don’t challenge your partner if they aren’t ready to forgive, as this can cause additional hurt instead of putting you on the path to repair.
“Picture the process of forgiveness like riding a wave,” she says. “The wave can feel unsettling, bumpy and turbulent, and at the same time we can feel content, patient and hopeful. Instead of fighting the wave of forgiveness and the uncomfortable feelings it can create, we can choose to sit with it and understand that the current uncomfortable feelings will not last forever.”