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Saying Sorry: Why Some Apologise Whilst Others Won’t

By August 19, 2015Blog
saying sorry / apology research

Why do some people find it hard to apologise whilst others don’t and why do some apologise whilst others won’t?

Most of us can think of someone to whom saying sorry is incredibly difficult, creating sheer frustration for a spouse, family member or friend who is awaiting an apology.  For others, however, it’s really not important that they hear the words “I’m sorry” because all they want is a sign that the person is sorry.

We may start off judging people based on our own framework of acceptable behaviour, often stemming from what we learnt in childhood, but our desire to have a meaningful relationship with someone can cause us to adapt how we apply that framework to that person.  For example, as we learn that someone we love is notoriously reluctant to apologise, over time we might begin to look for actions they use to convey that they are sorry rather than waiting to hear them say “sorry”.

Apologising, whether spoken or shown, is very important to the health of a relationship.  If we want to be deemed trustworthy and respectful, responsible and intelligent, an acknowledgement of a mistake or wrong-doing conveys exactly that.  We cannot forge a solid relationship with someone where trust or respect is missing, but responsibility and intelligence are also important, particularly if this is someone our success hinges on, e.g. an employee (career successes) or a spouse (relationships and life successes).

Using Apology Research To Help You Understand Your Loved Ones

In their review of the research into apologies in close relationships, Lewis et al. (2011) felt that there were six fair conclusions that they could draw from the body of evidence.

Conclusion 1 from the research on apologies in close relationships

The closer the relationship is, the higher the probability of an apology being made.  The transgressor in a close relationship is much more likely to feel guilt and more inclined to take steps to repair any damage or perceived damage.  The motivation here is a desire to maintain the relationship by reinstating equilibrium.

Conclusion 2 from the research on apologies in close relationships

Women are more likely to apologise than men.  Non-apologetic men may seem more stubborn or arrogant but in reality men tend to apologise less than women for very different reasons.  Men have a higher threshold for what they deem apology-worthy and so are not only less likely to give an apology, they are also less likely to expect one.  Women appear to judge situations where apologies are required more harshly than their male counterparts and so this results in women being more likely to engage in apologising and more likely to expect them of others, than men.

Conclusion 3 from the research on apologies in close relationships

When the transgressor is focused on the desire to repair damage done to the relationship rather than focused on absolving themselves of guilt or blame, there is a greater likelihood that they will apologise.

Conclusion 4 from the research on apologies in close relationships

A sincere apology seems to initiate the process of forgiveness.  Presumably, as the transgressor seems aware and remorseful and has taken action to rectify the situation, this inadvertently communicates, “You and our relationship are important to me.”  This process also seems to reduce the negative emotions that follow a transgression.

Conclusion 5 from the research on apologies in close relationships

Empathy on the part of the aggrieved is likely increased when in receipt of an apology.  In other words, the aggrieved is able to see beyond their own hurt more easily when they feel the other person is remorseful.  Inevitably, this allows an easier resolution of the situation and any negative emotions.

Conclusion 6 from the research on apologies in close relationships

The aggrieved would like some sort of reassurance that the offending behaviour will not be repeated by the transgressor.

Overall, the numerous research studies done in this domain show that the closeness of the relationship is a predictor of how much effort two people make to apologise and empathise, with the closer relationships resulting in more effort being exerted.

It is very important for women to remember that there are gender differences so just because a man in your life isn’t always forthcoming with an apology, doesn’t necessarily mean he doesn’t care.

Furthermore, self-esteem also plays a role in conflict resolution.  As I mention in my book, Relationship Remedies, “No speech is automatically required of your intention to move forward with amended thinking and behaviour.  Sometimes all you need to do is just admit it to yourself and make the necessary changes.”  This is a particularly useful strategy for those who lack self-esteem and consequently struggle to admit wrongdoings and find it easier to show they have acknowledged them.  If your loved one falls into this category, then be sure to look for signs of the apology.  If you still feel the need to discuss the issue when your loved one still hasn’t, then doing so after a little period has lapsed can help the transgressor gain some perspective and feel less vulnerable.

Final Thoughts

We have a need to be able to overcome relationship problems if we see a future with someone, be it a friend, lover or family member.  So, if that apology is forthcoming, whether via words or action, then you know they care about the relationship.  If a genuine apology is ever elusive, whatever their means for expressing it, then the message is loud and clear.


Lewis, J.T., Parra, G. R. & Cohen, R. (2011).  Apologies in Close Relationships: A Review of Theory and Research.  Journal of Family Theory & Review, 7 (1), 47-61.