When Your Apology Falls Flat

by Drs. Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas


Apology Language Quiz

In our years of counseling couples and families, we have encountered this challenging scenario many times:

Wife: "I would forgive him if he would just apologize."

Husband: "I did apologize. I said I was sorry."

Wife: "That's not an apology."

In the husband's mind, he apologized; in the wife's mind, he did not. Does this sound familiar? Have your apologies to your spouse and children fallen flat? Do the apologies of the people in your family connect with your heart and motivate you to forgive? Or do they seem to seldom apologize? What are your children learning through your words and actions about what it means to apologize?

After two years of research, we have discovered that people have different apology languages. A person may apologize sincerely, and yet, the apology is not perceived as sincere because it's spoken in a different language. Consider these five distinct languages of apology:

Expressing regret

This language identifies with the emotions of the offended party. "I am sorry. I feel bad that my behavior hurt you so deeply."

Accepting responsibility

This apology acknowledges your mistake and accepts fault. "I should not have done that. There is no excuse. What I did was wrong."

Making restitution

The main concern in this apology is rebuilding trust. "What could I do to make this right? How shall I make amends to you? How could I restore your confidence in me?"

Communicating repentance

This shows your desire to change your behavior. Repentance doesn't make rash promises, such as, "I promise I'll never do it again if you will forgive me." Instead, it says, "I do not want this to continue happening. Help me think of ways I can change my behavior."

Requesting forgiveness

This language expresses humility. "I realize I cannot restore this relationship alone. It will require mercy on your part. Will you please forgive me?"

Discovering their language

Each of us has a primary apology language — one that speaks more deeply to us than the other four. It is what we are waiting to hear in an apology. If we don't hear our language, it really doesn't sound like an apology. The same is true when we are the ones apologizing. If we speak a language that does not resonate with our family members, the apology may sound hollow to them. We must express our sincerity in a language they can understand.

Apology Language Quiz

How do you discover your spouse's and children's primary apology languages? Ask your family member, "When you apologize to someone, what do you typically say or do? When someone apologizes to you, what do you expect that person to say or do?" The answers to those two questions will likely reveal his or her primary apology language. You can also find an online assessment by visiting 5lovelanguages.com.

Learning your spouse's and children's apology languages will remove emotional barriers more quickly than if you simply apologize in your own language. It restores closeness and trust. And it creates a loving and safe environment where children can learn the benefits of apology. Repairing relationship

I (Jennifer) have had many chances to apologize to my own children. For example, my 11-year-old son loves to build models. He was delighted when he found an unopened wooden model of the Wright brothers' airplane from his father's childhood. The plane was intricate, and I watched from a distance as my son and husband assembled pieces no bigger than matchsticks.

Before the model airplane was complete, they set it in a basket on top of the refrigerator for the glue to dry. Unfortunately, I could not see their "safe place" because of my short stature and continued to toss books and papers into the basket as usual.

When my son and husband discovered their model airplane had been reduced to pieces under the weight of my deposits in the basket, my son was heartbroken. I wanted to show him my sorrow and my love, so I put my arm around him and told him I was sorry I had crushed his treasure.

Even though I hadn't intended to damage his project, I still needed to take responsibility. In addition to reassuring him of my love despite my carelessness, I needed to either buy him a new airplane or find a way to glue the pieces back together. These efforts toward repairing the model also served to repair our relationship.

You may find it difficult to speak a different apology language from your own, but becoming fluent in the languages of your spouse and children is time well invested. It has the potential to build relationship as the barriers caused by imperfections are removed and love flows freely.

During a recent conversation, a woman commented, "I've just discovered that, for 42 years, I've been apologizing to my husband in the wrong language. Do you think I should change now?"

Our advice: It's never too late to change.

A month later she shared, "I've been apologizing in my husband's language, and it makes a difference. He's smiling more, and I feel closer to him." When asked if it was worth the effort to learn to speak his apology language, she said, "Absolutely. We're never too old to learn."


Teaching Children How to Apologize

The need to apologize isn't confined to adults; children can and should learn the importance of a sincere apology. Here are the teaching steps we recommend:

  • Help your children accept responsibility for their behavior, and teach them that their actions affect others.

  • Promote their understanding that apologies are necessary to maintain good relationships. When I hurt other people by my words or my behavior, I have created a barrier between that person and myself. If I don't learn to apologize, the barrier will remain and the relationship will be fractured.

  • Apologize to your children for your harsh words or unfair treatment. They'll have a greater respect for you — not a diminished respect, as some parents reason. Also share with your children the times you've needed to apologize to others.

  • Coach your children on how to speak the five languages of apology. Ideally, they will not only know the five languages but will also feel comfortable speaking them. Their level of proficiency should increase with age.


Dr. Gary Chapman is a pastor, speaker and best-selling author. Dr. Jennifer Thomas is a motivational speaker and psychologist. Drs. Chapman and Thomas have co-written a book titled The Five Languages of Apology.

This article first appeared in the October/November 2011 issue of Thriving Family magazine and was originally titled " 'I Said I'm Sorry.' " Copyright © 2011 by Drs. Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas. Used by permission. ThrivingFamily.com.


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