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

Nikki Campo
Published in
4 min readMar 22, 2021
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…



Nikki Campo

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