If someone wrongs you and says, “I’m sorry,” do you believe them? Or do you need them to say and do more to show the sincerity of their apology?

If you’ve ever had a situation with your spouse where they’ve said they apologised, but you don’t think they did, you may be speaking two different languages of apology.

In each of their counselling offices, Drs. Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas were observing couples misunderstand each other’s apologies. “The supposed apology was not having the desired effect of forgiveness and reconciliation,” Chapman writes in their book When Sorry Isn’t Enough.

Similar to his research around the five love languages (words of affirmation, receiving gifts, acts of service, quality time and physical touch), they discovered there are five distinct ways people apologise:

1. Expressing regret
2. Accepting responsibility
3. Making restitution
4. Genuinely repenting
5. Requesting forgiveness

Just like some people’s response to the idea of five love languages, there are those who may find there’s more than one apology language they resonate with, but we can often tell which is our primary language when we say, “I know they said they apologised, but I just wish they would ___.”

Through this research, Jennifer Thomas discovered her husband’s rational mind required her to accept responsibility. Meanwhile the high value she placed on emotions meant she needed to hear him express regret. “By our thirteenth year of marriage,” she explains, “we had finally learned to shorten our arguments by apologising not in our own languages but in the primary language of the other person.”

In his own marriage, Gary Chapman also remembered times when he felt his wife, Karolyn’s, apology was insincere. Looking back, he realises it wasn’t that she didn’t mean it – it was that they each spoke a different language of apology.

Whether you’re in your first year of marriage or you’ve been married for decades, it’s never too late to learn what you and your spouse each need in an apology.

Expressing regret

Simply put, expressing regret is saying, “I’m sorry.” For those with this primary apology language, these two words are essential, and their absence is noticed.

“Quite often offenders will not realise that they have left out some ‘magic words,’” Thomas writes, “but you can be assured that the listener is scanning the silence for those missing words.”

Of course, a sincere apology includes far more than these two words but using them within your apology can go a long way for someone who speaks this language.

“The language of regret . . . focuses on their pain and your behaviour and how the two are related,” Chapman and Thomas write. “It is communicating to them that you feel hurt because you know your actions have hurt them. It is this identification with their pain that stimulates in them a willingness to forgive.”

A sincere expression of regret includes:

  • An admission of your guilt and an understanding of the pain your behaviour has caused
  • Body language that affirms the sincerity of your regret
  • Specificity of what the action was and how it affected your spouse; e.g., “I’m sorry for ___”

What does it look like when this apology language is insincere?

  • An excuse or justification; e.g., “I’m sorry but . . .”
  • Blame-shifting
  • Using “I’m sorry” to manipulate your spouse into apologising to you
  • Apologising for how they feel, not how you acted; e.g., “I’m sorry you were hurt”

Accepting responsibility

For those who speak this language, it’s important for them to hear something along the lines of “I was wrong.” Unfortunately, this is a relational skill some of us have difficulty with. Depending on how you were raised, accepting responsibility may be seen as a sign of weakness and thus a reflection on your self-worth.

“When a child is excessively punished, condemned or shamed for minor offences, the sense of self-worth is diminished,” Chapman and Thomas explain. “Subconsciously, the child makes the emotional link between wrong behaviour and low self-worth. Thus, to admit wrong is to be ‘bad.’ The child who grows up with this emotional pattern will have difficulty admitting wrongdoing as an adult because to do so strikes at his or her self-esteem.”

When this is our mindset, we can quickly turn to blaming others or justifying our own behaviour when confronted. Thankfully, God created us with the capacity to learn, grow and mature. If this is a difficult language to speak, you can work with a counsellor to break those negative emotional patterns from your childhood and learn to accept responsibility when you’ve done wrong.

Sincerely accepting responsibility includes:

  • Saying “I was wrong” as a full sentence – no excuses, no self-justification
  • Knowing the difference between “I was wrong” (guilt) and “I am bad” (shame)
  • Taking ownership of your right to feel difficult emotions (anger, frustration, etc.) while also admitting it’s wrong to take those emotions out on your spouse (lashing out, withdrawing, etc.)

What does it look like when this apology language is insincere?

  • Blaming your spouse for how you acted
  • Minimising your responsibility by saying, “I was wrong but . . .”

Making restitution

For those who need to see restitution in a sincere apology, the words “I’m sorry” and “I was wrong” are not enough. They also need to hear the words, “How can I make this right?”

“Without this effort at restitution, this person will question the sincerity of the apology,” Chapman and Thomas write. “They wait for the tangible reassurance that you genuinely love them.”

This is where understanding your spouse’s love language will help you as you make amends. If you’re able to show them through words of affirmation, gifts, acts of service, quality time or physical touch that you love them and you’re truly sorry, they’ll be able to see it as a sincere apology.

It should be noted that some apologies, depending on what was done, require more than simply speaking their love language. “It may require repayment or restoring of something taken – a damaged car, a scratched watch . . . or even a good name,” they note.

Sincere restitution includes:

  • A genuine apology plus a spoken desire to right any wrongs committed
  • Using your spouse’s love language to show tangible evidence that you want to make amends
  • Additional repayment and restoration of any damage done

What does it look like when this apology language is insincere?

  • Empty promises of restitution with no follow-up
  • A refusal to speak their primary love language in making amends

Genuinely repenting

You may be thinking most behaviour that requires an apology should lead to change anyway, and this is true, but for those who speak this language, they need to hear the words, “I want to change.” If you choose to simply say “I’m sorry” and make a change without telling your spouse, they may not realise the change they see in the coming weeks or months is part of your apology.

“When apologising, it is far better to state your intention to change. Then the person knows that you truly recognise that your behaviour is wrong – and that you fully intend to change that behaviour,” Chapman and Thomas explain.

Sincere repentance includes three steps:

  • An expression of intent to change
  • Developing a plan for implementing change
  • Implementing your plan to change

What does it look like when this apology language is insincere?

  • A lack of specificity in the plan to implement change
  • Hiding and/or minimising relapses in the behaviour you said you’d change
  • A lack of humility and/or a resistance to inviting your spouse into the plan to change

Requesting forgiveness

You may have heard someone say, “They said they were sorry, but they never asked if I’d forgive them.” Those who speak this language need to be asked for forgiveness so they can play an active role in reconciliation.

However, this is not easy for everyone to do. When you say, “Will you forgive me?” the choice to forgive or not to forgive is then in the hands of your spouse. Those who like to feel in control suddenly feel out of control. Those who fear rejection are giving an option to not be forgiven, and therefore be rejected. And those who fear failure may think unforgiveness on their spouse’s part reflects their own self-worth.

Similar to those who struggle to accept responsibility, though, we have the ability to grow in this area. However, learning to do so may require the help of a counsellor.

“Mature people recognise their fears but refuse to be held captive by their fears,” Chapman and Thomas explain. “When they value a relationship, they are willing to go against their fears and take the steps necessary to bring healing to the relationship.”

Sincerely requesting forgiveness includes:

  • A humble invitation for the offended spouse to play an active role in reconciliation
  • Patience, especially if the offended spouse needs time to forgive

What does it look like when this apology language is insincere?

  • A demand for forgiveness, instead of a request
  • An expectation of immediate forgiveness; frustration or anger when that doesn’t happen
  • A lack of admission of guilt and/or changed behaviour

Discovering your and your spouse’s apology language

In their research, Chapman and Thomas discovered that 75 per cent of the couples they surveyed differed in their primary apology language. And of those, 15 per cent had completely opposite language preferences – one spouse’s primary apology language was the other’s last choice.

To help individuals identify their own apology language, they suggest considering these three questions:

  1. What do I expect the person making an apology to do or say?
  2. What hurts most deeply about this situation?
  3. How do I apologise to others?

Learning to apologise in your spouse’s language may take time, but it’s a skill that can make a huge difference in your relationship. As Chapman and Thomas explain, “We believe that when we all learn to apologise – and when we understand each other’s apology language – we can trade in tired excuses for honesty, trust and joy.”

To learn more about these five languages of apology, read Chapman and Thomas’ book When Sorry Isn’t Enough. You can also find an apology language quiz on 5LoveLanguages.com.

There are times when wrongs committed in a marriage are too painful for the couple to deal with on their own and reconciliation can seem out of reach. If you and your spouse are struggling to forgive and be forgiven, find a counsellor in your area through the Christian Counsellors Association of Australia.

© 2021 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Amy Van Veen

Editorial manager at Focus on the Family Canada.

Tell your friends