The Power to Heal – Apologies in Relationship Conflict

Relationships invariably involve peaks and troughs. No matter how close two people might be, disagreements, misunderstandings and hurt feelings will happen. Such mis-attunements, while common, can mean the difference between a relationship that deepens and strengthens, and one that founders on the differences that arise between people over time. These mis-attunements act as ruptures, large and small, to the bond that hold people together.

Research on attachment ties between people shows that mis-attunements happen around 70% of the time. This level of mis-attunement, left unaddressed, compounds, ultimately destroying relationships that seemed to hold great promise.

The key issue is whether people have the skills, courage, maturity and willingness to address and then repair such ruptures effectively and in a timely manner, as they become aware of them.

There is art and science in the raising, naming, and processing of ruptures. A lot of skills are involved in how we address the fact a rupture has happened. And many skills are involved in hearing about one’s own part in creating a rupture and responding well and effectively to address the rupture and one’s part in it.

While all ruptures involve a dynamic, and context is always relevant, for the purposes of clarity, in this blog I will concentrate on issues that more specifically relate to the person identified as the one whose actions or words caused the rupture.

I will draw on research about intimate couples to discuss relationship ruptures in general. I believe the issues regarding rupture and repair apply to both life partner conflicts, as well as non-life partner relationships (such as friends, siblings, children, co-workers).

John Gottman is a researcher into what makes marriage relationships succeed or fail[i].

I call those people who have found ways to have successful long-term relationships “long term happies”, to distinguish them from those who remain unhappily connected for the long term.

Gottman has found that 69% of what couples fight about is unresolvable. The possibilities for friction are endless. How couples deal with such unresolvable issues is a key determinant in predicting which couple will make it and become long term happies, and which will become casualty statistics.

For many people, a difficult personal history or poor early modelling around relationships, shame or abuse, conflict, fear of conflict, fear of making things worse, and lack of skills at having difficult conversations, can mean they remain trapped in the vicious cycle of unresolved ruptures, and the painful whittling away of what might once have been precious to them.

Gottman and his team have found that:

  • how couples enter conflict
  • how they treat each other while in conflict, and
  • whether and how effective and timely they are at repairing ruptures when they occur

is fundamental to determining the degree to which the relationship will likely become one of the success stories or a casualty statistic.

Stan Tatkin is a couple therapist[ii]. He actively works with the myriad of signals that pass between partners moment to moment, and how these contribute to the many ruptures that happen all the time in every relationship, big and small. He, too, finds that long term happies that he terms “secure functioning couples”, commit to creating the kind of relationship where their relationship comes first. This includes how each partner approaches conflict[iii]. It also means partners prioritise “fixing” conflicts (ruptures) when they arise. Fixing, in Tatkin’s view, is determined by both partners feeling good after a sort out following a rupture. It does not necessarily mean they agree or that the issue itself is resolved. But it does require that both partners feel good again about the bond between them.

It turns out that long term happies are masters at identifying ruptures. They address them quickly and they repair them effectively. They prioritise the relationship over being right. And they don’t try to solve unsolvable problems.


One of the most ridiculous things I recall reading on a greeting card some years ago was, “Love means never having to say I’m sorry”.

I was astounded at the monumental ignorance of this phrase. Given what I know to be “normal” – that is, the inevitability of people continually, inadvertently as well as deliberately, hurting each other, getting each other wrong, and irritating each other – that statement left no room for any real relationship I knew about.

Instead, I suggest that love involves saying “I’m sorry” sincerely, as often and whenever necessary, if it’s going to help heal a rupture. And doing it as soon as possible.

What kind of apology?

We have all experienced someone apologising to us for something they did or said (or didn’t say or do) that upset us, and that apology not “feeling right”. The apology feels empty or meaningless to us. Apologies can feel wrong for all sorts of reasons – as a brush-off, a way of silencing any further discussion, an attempt to reclaim social standing as a nice/ good person, a way of seeming to abide by the social contract while not really acknowledging the hurt that happened. Apologies can feel insulting, insincere, dismissive, manipulative, and even contemptuous. One of my personal favourites in this category is “I’m sorry you feel that way”.

Forgiveness as expectation after apology

Having done their bit – so to speak – the person who made the apology expects a pass. From their point of view, they’ve done their part: they apologised. We now “owe them” forgiveness and the right to move on. The matter is meant to be settled there and then, and the subject closed. From there, our role is to play nice, shut up about our distress or concerns, and grant them full status again as a trusted person in our life. In Australia, we’re told “build a bridge and get over it”. “Move on”.

If only it were that simple.

Often, the person who performs a Clayton’s apology expects to be forgiven – that is, they want to be granted all the rights and privileges that usually go with not being the kind of person who hurts or betrays others. If forgiveness is not forthcoming, they may pressure the other person to “move on” or criticise them for bearing a grudge, being bloody minded or overly sensitive, playing the victim, or making a mountain out of a molehill.

In many cultures, forgiveness is held up as a moral duty. Being able to move on after a rupture and apology is seen as a sign of maturity. So, the pressure on the receiver of an apology to accept it and drop their concern can be significant.

Entrenched conflicts

Many of the people I meet in my role as therapist come when they are entrenched in nasty conflicts. When I attempt to unravel the story behind the conflict, I often meet with intense bitterness, resentment, resistance, and push-back as I seek to find out where there might be some “give” to start the repair process.

By “give”, I mean I look for evidence of willingness on a person’s part to move away from being right on some point – to admitting how they might have been hurtful or overstated something or been insensitive as well in service of getting the relationship back onto a solid footing. Whilst listening to each party to the conflict, I look for a willingness to be humble, to admit that maybe they’re not right, maybe they’re not the only *wronged one*, or that their pain justifies their own hurtful actions. I look for willingness to see how they might have contributed to things continuing to be off-track between them. I also look for a willingness and capacity to recognise, empathise with and attend to the other person’s hurt – to see the other person’s hurt feelings as valid as their own.

Instead, I find that most couples stuck in a gridlock over a rupture are often intent on determining who is *right* on any one issue. They may come to couple therapy determined to have me, as their therapist, adjudicate on who is right and who is wrong.

In being so focused on winning the contest of who is most *right* , they lose sight of the unintended cost of this standoff – their relationship happiness.

Carol Dweck, a researcher on mindsets[iv], has found that people can have a growth or a fixed mindset. Curiously, her research maps perfectly onto John Gottman’s findings. In essence, those people who have the best chance of ending up as long-term happies are people with a growth mindset. A growth mindset is just that – it is oriented to look for what can be learned and changed in service of a greater purpose. Those with a fixed mindset are convinced that people are just so – they see things in very rigid, predetermined ways. If a relationship breaks down, they see breaking up as the *only* logical option given the immutability of how they see people. Fixed mindset people leave no room for growth. If there’s no room for growth, then there’s no room for learning and no room for change.

So, what gets in the way?

In my practice, one of the first things I focus on is to help people to ruthlessly identify, challenge and re-set unhelpful priorities they’ve been using to address issues in their relationship.

Misguided priorities

Typically, here are some of the “priorities” that I find get in the way of repairing ruptures:

  • needing to be right, or to prove a point
  • needing a partner to concede that they were wrong
  • need for revenge, retribution, inflicting humiliation, or shame
  • insisting that one person’s hurt was worse or more valid than the others, or
  • insisting that the hurt arose as a consequence of an act of revenge is deserved and therefore doesn’t count as a hurt
  • believing that there’s no point in addressing ruptures – that one just has to just “move on”
  • the expectation that the phrase “I’m sorry” should wipe the slate clean after a rupture, without any need for reflection on what happened. Thus, going back over the details of what happened is often defended against as “not wanting to wallow in something”
  • insisting that something should be “put behind us” because it’s in the past, or
  • believing that someone is “unwilling to let go” of something in a grudge-holding bid to torture the other.

In our work together, such “priorities” reveal themselves in peoples’ ways of relating with each other:

  • in their assumptions when they address issues
  • in where they cut off discussion or get insistent about what “should” happen (instead of dealing with what’s going on between them at the time), and
  • in the places people push back most fiercely when questioned.

Spotting reactions in non-verbals

I help partners learn to spot when ruptures occur, and train them to prioritise addressing ruptures (process) in priority over the agenda (content) when they arise. This is often one of the hardest things for couples in conflict to learn to do.

Whether we like it or not, once we have reacted to something (a perceived slight, an attack, a memory, a betrayal, a tone of voice, sound, facial expression), our brain stops processing things logically as effectively. Part of our brain is now “occupied” with dealing with its emotional reaction. Until that part is addressed sufficiently to settle, we won’t be able to address the content of the original matter that was tabled for discussion (what I call the agenda) anyway.

Most of us know this about ourselves.

Yet, many people get very attached to finishing their point, to having the other person not interrupt them until they’ve finished their whole story, convinced that repair can only arise if they have had a full and lengthy hearing first. They’re wrong.

Often, when a controversial issue is spoken about, ruptures happen before the whole story is even told. Attempts at resolving issues get derailed by a myriad of nonverbal cues – a sigh, a glance, eyeball roll, a sound, facial expressions and posture. And that’s in addition to what might be said in words! Learning to address hurt feelings, especially shame, contempt, defensiveness, blame, misunderstandings and stonewalling, as soon as possible along the way is key to opening the possibility for true repair.

Gottman has identified four poisons that he found are associated with poor relationship outcomes. Gottman identified these as criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. In addressing ruptures, these poisons often manifest very quickly moment to moment between duelling partners.

I find that partners will typically make things worse rather than repair and resolve ruptures by the manner in which they enter a conversation about a controversial issue. Gottman refers to this as a harsh start up, which typically includes accusations framed as criticism, blame, over-generalisations (for example never or always), and using inflammatory language. From there, ruptures tend to compound as people get defensive, feel unseen or unfairly judged, and push back in self-protective ways. If partners address each other with contempt, this may shut down all possibility for real discussion.

It’s not surprising that no one gets heard under such conditions. And also not surprisingly, things escalate very quickly. In time, people get hopeless about addressing and resolving anything. Gradually, people see each other differently and stop seeing each other as true partners. They stop talking about what matters and they grow apart. They start to see each other more as enemies than as partners who have each other’s best interests at heart. Things frequently devolve to “every person for themselves”. Before long, they can become distant strangers, even as they continue their everyday life together.


In order to prevent any relationship breaking down, partners need to learn the skills needed to repair ruptures when they occur, and so increase their chances of having a long-term happy relationship.

This requires them to build the kind of relationship where:

  • both people are treated with care and respect, regardless of who might be right in some ways
  • both accept that multiple and often contradictory realities exist
  • both care more about their partner being okay rather than being in the right
  • both are willing to try to work to see the other person’s perspective
  • both work towards building a fair and just relationship
  • both consider it imperative for them both to be sensitive to each other’s vulnerabilities
  • both agree on what the general agreements are and the deal breakers in their relationship
  • both see it as essential for both of them to maintain those agreements, and
  • both consider that if something is *right*, it’s got to be right for both of them.

The apology

Couples I speak with often tell me “I’ve said I’m sorry, but s/he won’t let anything go”.

When I hear that, I often wonder whether the hurt has actually been heard, felt, and addressed by the person claiming the other is ‘holding on’. In my experience, most people seek relief from their pain. That’s more important to them than holding on to it.

Often, I find the apology that was proffered didn’t actually ‘land’ for the hurt person for very good reasons. They typically speak of feeling brushed off, dismissed, rather than being met. They tell me they feel their issue was shut down, minimised or trivialised, excused, or rationalised away. They may even feel blamed for it happening at all.

When I check this out with the person who claims they have apologised, I am often met with irritability, defensiveness, and minimising. It’s not uncommon for me to hear such a person tell me “the past is the past. It is what is. I can’t change what’s happened.” They often sound like they’re claiming the moral higher ground and feel hard done by. After all, in their logic, they’ve apologised! It’s the partner that seems unable or unwilling to move forward, to put the past behind them. It’s not them.

What the person doing the ineffective apology fails to realise is that they’re adding to the original hurt through their manner of addressing it. In effect, they are adding insult to injury by implying and sometimes openly saying — “get over it, already. I’ve moved on”.

The person who has caused hurt can’t expect the person they’ve hurt to “get over it” with a simple “I’m sorry”. An effective apology involves a whole lot more than the words, “I’m sorry”.

When apology doesn’t work

We all know what a cursory or insincere apology feels like, or an apology that’s more about the speaker making themselves feel better or look good again, rather than truly addressing a hurt they’ve caused.

We know the difference between an effective apology and an ineffectual or insincere one at a body level — our body registers the difference. We see it in the speaker’s eyes and face, we hear it in their tone of voice, their choice of words. Our body registers the apology and decodes it as real, partially real, or false. We feel this in our own body as we feel it open or shut down, feel our heart stop, race or slow down, as we hold our breath, or breathe freely, and as our muscles tighten or relax. We recognise sincerity and authentic remorse and empathy, just as we recognise disingenuousness, rote or formulaic responses, and hollow expressions of care.

Making an effective repair – the authentic apology

Persons wanting to learn to make effective repairs to relationship ruptures need to learn the skill of tracking what their partner’s non-verbal responses to their efforts reveal about their repair attempts. They also need to address any signals that suggest something has not landed well and find ways of course-correcting as they go if they are to make an effective apology.

A real and effective repair needs to let the person we’ve hurt know beyond doubt that we want to understand and get how deeply we hurt them; that we are truly sorry; that we are willing to resonate with their hurt; that our priority is for them to feel better; and that we are willing to take the time it takes for them to heal.

When I assist relationships where hurt has happened (for example, an affair, verbal abuse, or betrayal), I first work to have the person who has hurt the other NAME what they think or know they did to the other person. I start there because it’s not uncommon for the person who has hurt the other to have an inaccurate or incomplete understanding of how and what they did to hurt the other. So, the rupture or hurt needs to be stated and checked for accuracy and completeness.

This sounds simple, but often requires a lot of effort and discipline on the part of the speaker that most of us have never been taught.

This involves:

  1. use statements in which you own your actions – using personal pronouns, I know I did X to you, I said Y to you
  2. label what you did or said descriptively and accurately, describing behaviours – I hit you, I was rude to you, I humiliated you, I ignored you, I betrayed you
  3. call yourself out for what you did – no playing things down, no excuses, no blame
  4. be willing to accept that, no matter what else was going on at the time, YOU are still the one who chose to do or say what you did. Be willing to take full responsibility for your choices, even if you think there were extenuating circumstances
  5. attempt to put into words what you think the effect of your hurtful behaviour was for the other person – I know/I think/I imagine you felt hurt, betrayed, humiliated, shamed by what I did or said
  6. be willing to be ruthlessly honest in calling out your own bad/hurtful behaviour for what it was and use language that demonstrates that
  7. no defensiveness, no excuses, no blame, no justifications; no minimising language
  8. check out with the partner whether they feel you’ve “got” how harmful your words or actions were for them. Actively seek clarification so you can be sure you have as comprehensive an understanding as possible of the impact of your actions
  9. accept that your partner’s reality is their experience. Don’t argue with them, try to change their mind, or tell them it’s not as bad as they feel
  10. make adjustments to your own narrative to incorporate the partner’s experience
  11. challenge yourself to feel the hurt you caused the other person without prioritising your own shame or guilt (I feel so bad, you know how hard this is for me)
  12. allow yourself to feel the impact of the hurt you caused in real time, as you witness your partner’s hurt in the moment. Show that you’re taking the hit, are feeling hurt for your partner’s pain. Openly allow your own sorrow, guilt, sadness, regret, remorse to show in your face and body posture
  13. PACE the repair – one statement at a time. No rushing
  14. Allow each chunk to register with your partner, allow your partner time to check if what is being said ‘lands’ for them as genuine and true. Don’t rush — don’t try to hurry them up, don’t try to get it done
  15. track your partner’s nonverbal cues and check whether something has landed or hasn’t – whether something needs clarifying or whether a new rupture has happened
  16. Check whether you are reading your partner’s response correctly and attempt to repair or course-correct – whatever needs to be addressed right then
  17. do not move on to the next piece before being clear that a piece has landed effectively or repairing inadvertent new hurts that arise
  18. accept that repair may take more than one conversation. Effective repair takes time.

So, if you have a relationship where you would like to apologise for hurt you’ve caused, or feel you have apologised but it hasn’t worked, ask yourself:

  1. Why do you want to make the repair? Is it for you, for the other person, for both? Is it for some other reason?
  2. How do you want to feel on the other side of the repair? How would you like your partner to feel?
  3. If you have already apologised and it hasn’t worked, check the points above and identify what you think might be the reason your apology failed
  4. If there are certain points in the list above where you feel yourself resist, push back — what are those points?
  5. What are you most afraid of admitting – to yourself or the other? How will admitting that change your view of how you see yourself?
  6. How much do you really believe the other person was really hurt by your actions? Are you able to identify how your actions impacted them?
  7. Would the other person agree with your list? Or would they change it or add other items?
  8. How much do you really care about the other person’s pain? Do you hurt for their hurt, or is your discomfort more conceptual?

If you’ve considered these questions and think you’d like to go ahead and work on making an effective repair in a relationship, and you can see you might need some help, contact me.

[i] GOTTMAN, J. (1995). Why marriages succeed or fail, Simon and Schuster.

[ii] TATKIN, S, (2012). Wired for Love, New Harbinger.

[iii] TATKIN, S. (2018). We do, Sounds True.

[iv] DWECK, C. (2016). Mindset, Random House.