MY THERAPIST SAYS

My Therapist Says I’m Apologizing Wrong

Here’s how my marriage improved when I learned to do it right — and when to skip the apology altogether

Illustration: Xinmei Liu for Elemental

I stood at the sink and glared at my husband, Paul, who traipsed through the kitchen in his shoes. Again. “I forgot my phone,” he said, creeping back out on tiptoe as if to deposit less dirt on my clean floor. He blew me a kiss before pulling the door shut with a wimpy “Sorry!” on his way out.

Was he?

During our decade-long marriage, conversations about shoes in the house had remained unchanged: He forgot, I reminded him, he apologized, we repeated.

After a while, it wasn’t about the shoes. I wanted to know my requests mattered. If he apologized for something, I also wanted to hear “and I know how much that bothers you, so I won’t do it again.”

As I do with most of my woes, I took the shoes issue to my therapist. “There’s nothing ‘wrong’ between us,” I started, instinctively defending our union, “I just don’t feel like he means it when he says ‘sorry.’”

My therapist’s bookshelves are lined with renowned psychologist and apology guru Harriet Lerner’s bestsellers. So it’s no surprise she leans on Lerner’s teachings. “Apologies can be done poorly. If you’re not doing it right, it’s not an apology,” she said.

Lerner says there are nine components to a true apology. My therapist summarized them into a few guideposts: validation underpins all good apologies (accepting the other person’s reality as true, without judgment), believability matters (no “buts,” defensiveness, or excuses), and the undesirable behavior must change in the future. Sometimes, reflection on an issue might lead us to not apologize at all.

My eye rolls, my offenses I had apologized for and then repeated, even my go-to “I’m sorry you feel hurt” rather than “I’m sorry I hurt you” could all undo what might otherwise mend a fence.

When I told Paul what my therapist said, he reminded me of my own transgressions. “So, when you roll your eyes after I ask you to stop tossing the baby’s dirty diapers next to, but not into, the trash cans, that doesn’t count as an apology either?”

He had a point. I was guilty of huffing out a fake apology, with no intention of changing my behavior. What was missing from our apologies was validation.

“Validation is showing you accept his feelings, even if you don’t agree with them,” my therapist explained. “It’s a cornerstone of any healthy relationship.” Without this validation, one or both of us ended up feeling “off” in the relationship. My eye rolls, my offenses I had apologized for and then repeated, even my go-to “I’m sorry you feel hurt” rather than “I’m sorry I hurt you” could all undo what might otherwise mend a fence.

I had a lot to ponder.

Employing another strategy my therapist taught me about nurturing healthy partnerships (work on yourself first), I tried to model the behaviors I wanted to see from Paul when he apologized.

First up? I wouldn’t make excuses or say “but.”

This one was hard. “But” had become a way to let myself off the hook. Even worse, “I’m sorry” was often a precursor to my own grievance. “I’m sorry we interrupted your meeting, but you’re not the one trying to keep two kids in remote school and a toddler quiet.”

Dialogues that devolve into critique-defense volleyball aren’t easily sorted out in real time, my therapist warned. Better to take some time, cool off, and regroup later.

Now, Paul and I make time to work out frustrations after the kids are in bed, often before Netflix and always over wine. Our agreement: The aggrieved party must try — like, actually try — not to formulate a response while the other person is talking. The goal is to understand how our actions made the other person feel without trying to defend ourselves, even in our minds. The practice has helped me to see how often I mastermind while he’s emoting.

Bad apologies, my therapist warned, can make the original injury worse. Better to wait until I’ve had time to reflect and decide if I’m actually sorry than to grumble the words and not mean them. Not every conversation about a contentious issue needs to include an apology.

Even better, we understand the power of a good apology. Recently, Paul ditched a Zoom we had scheduled with friends in favor of wrapping up work emails. When I told him I was upset, he paused for a moment and said, “I’m sorry I missed the call. It won’t happen again.” Though I wanted to point out the other time it had happened, I stopped myself. “Thanks for the apology,” I said.

Paul and I are far from perfect. And I’m not even sure mastering the art of apology is possible. But we’ve discovered that the more we practice, the more we see the other person trying, the better we both feel.

Last week, Paul returned home from a coffee run and took a few steps into the house wearing his shoes. Without seeing me, he backtracked, kicked off his shoes at the door, and padded down the hall in his socks.

Essays and humor. The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Good Housekeeping, The Belladonna, Slackjaw. Twitter: @nikkicampo.

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