Knowing Your Partner's Apology Language Can Make A Huge Diff In Your Relationship

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Photo credit: Francesco Carta fotografo - Getty Images
Photo credit: Francesco Carta fotografo - Getty Images


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So you’ve heard that people can have a love language, but did you know that apology languages exist as well? While love languages describe—among other things—the way you prefer to give and receive affection, an apology language recognizes the many ways a person can, you guessed it, say "I’m sorry."

And similar to how understanding someone’s love language can improve your relationship, recognizing you and your partner’s individual apology languages can be beneficial, too. For starters, even people in the healthiest relationships have arguments or disagreements at times, says Janet Brito, PhD, a certified sex therapist and founder of the Hawaii Center for Sexual and Relationship Health.

That’s why you need to learn how to effectively work through those disagreements, and you can do so by, yup, apologizing. (Even though it can be super hard!) "An apology language is a way of making amends, a way of repair," Brito explains. "There was some harm that was caused, whether it was intentional or unintentional, and now you’re trying to make it right."

In short, it’s all about accountability and letting your person know that you’re not only aware of the way you hurt them, but more importantly, that the mistake won’t be repeated. (Or at least, you'll try to prevent it from happening again—you're only human, after all!)

On top of all that, the way your apology is received depends on how your partner prefers to be apologized to. For example: While you might say "I’m sorry" by cooking your partner a nice dinner to make up for your wrongdoing, your bae could view that as an empty gesture and truly just prefer for you to say "I’m sorry for what I did; it won’t happen again," and leave it at that.

This is what makes recognizing and understanding someone’s apology language important: It’s how you’ll know the best way to repair the hurt in your relationship when it inevitably arises. Here's everything you need to know about apology languages, according to experts.

What are the apology languages?

Once again, your apology language refers to the way you choose to express your regret or to make amends with others. The term was coined in 2008 by Gary Chapman, PhD, in his book with co-author Jennifer Thomas called The Five Languages of Apology. (Yep, he penned The Five Love Languages, too.) Overall, the message experts stress is that we all have preferences on how we give and receive apologies.

That said, here’s what the five apology languages look like IRL:

Expressing Regret: This is when you or your partner use "I" language to describe how your words or actions impacted them, Brito says. "You’re expressing an emotional sentiment about the pain you’ve caused," she explains, which might sound something like, "I feel bad that I've hurt you in this way."

Accepting Responsibility: You know your actions or words were wrong, and you’re basically saying as much to your partner. You can accept responsibility for something small by saying, "I was wrong by not washing the dishes when I said I would," Brito says. If it's something deeper, accepting responsibility might look something like: "I was wrong for lying to you."

Making Restitution: When it comes to this apology language, not only are you sorry for your actions, but you’ll also do something to "make up" for what you did, Brito explains. For example, you might say, "I was wrong for not washing dishes tonight. I will wash the dishes three times this week to make up it to you."

Genuinely Repent: This is basically when you put yourself in the other person’s shoes, says Brito, and you’re honestly sorry for what occurred. Genuinely repenting might sound like saying, "I can only imagine what it was like for you to experience that. I get it, and I can see how that was painful for you. I’m sorry, and I will do things differently next time."

Requesting Forgiveness: In short, not only are you sorry for your behavior, but you’re also asking for forgiveness from your partner, Brito says. This might sound something like, "I know I let you down and I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?"

Are you apologizing too much?

Yes, there’s such a thing as over-apologizing. Sometimes, people simply apologize out of habit. "Women, in particular, often take responsibility for the emotions and feelings of others," says Victoria Woodruff, MSW, LMSW, a therapist practicing in Maryland.

If someone is having a bad day, try saying: "It looks like you’re having a tough time. Let me know if there is anything that I can do," instead of automatically saying "I'm sorry" (assuming you didn't cause the bad day, that is!).

Of course, everyone does things that warrant an apology sometimes, whether it’s losing your temper, criticizing someone unnecessarily, or, ya know, taking the last fizzy water from the fridge. So, when the time comes to make amends, "do so with intention and sincerity," advises Woodruff. "Be specific about what you've done and reflect that you understand the effect your actions may have had on others."

Why is it important to know your apology language?

Knowing the way you prefer to communicate your wants and needs is super important for the long-term stability of your relationship, Brito says. "Everyone has different backgrounds and experiences." This makes each person’s approach to apologies and forgiveness slightly different.

Knowing your partner’s apology languages will allow you to communicate in ways that you each understand and will hopefully receive positively. "Otherwise, you’re basically speaking two different languages," she cautions.

Disagreements are a healthy part of communication and growth, but "the faster you can repair those disagreements and come back to each other, the healthier the relationship is," Brito explains. Noted.

What can I do if I have a different apology language than my partner?

Basically, you shouldn’t stress out if your partner has a different apology language than you. (It’s very normal!) That said, it’s important to be intentional about learning the way they would prefer to communicate, instead of getting stuck in what Brito calls "default mode" (a.k.a. your own apology language).

Consider this: If you like to request forgiveness as your form of apology, but your partner prefers making restitution, they might feel that you’re falling a bit short by simply asking that they forgive you for what you’ve done. Perhaps they want a little something more, like a promise to cook them a delicious dinner, instead of words alone.

"Think about what they like, what makes them feel seen," Brito says. Sure, it might not be your initial reaction, but being in a healthy relationship is all about communication and compromise.

TBH, if you’re totally lost when it comes to figuring out your partner’s apology language, it doesn’t hurt to explicitly ask about their preferences and what you can do to make them feel validated. "Tell them you want to reconnect and see things from their perspective," says Brito. If anything, it’ll show you have a genuine interest in repairing the harm that’s been done.

How can I figure out what my apology language is?

There’s an easy, quick online quiz you can take designed by Chapman himself that will tell you your apology language. "It might also be a fun activity to do with your partner," Brito says. You can take the quiz separately and then share your respective answers.

"It’s an opportunity to really listen to your partner, and I mean really listen, from a place of curiosity and mindfulness," Brito explains. That said, there are other ways to figure out your apology language, primarily through doing some self-reflection.

"Think about times in your life when you have surprised yourself by your own capacity to forgive someone," says Women's Health advisor Chloe Carmichael, PhD, a clinical psychologist in New York. "What happened in that apology to make you accept it?"

On the flip side, you can also ask yourself when you felt an apology did not meet your standards, and it was difficult to forgive and fully move past a situation, Carmichael explains. As always, this kind of deep inner work is best done through activities like journaling, talking with a partner or close friend, or even speaking with a therapist, she adds.

If you ever feel stuck as you work through these thoughts and feelings, just know that what you’re doing will benefit all of your relationships in the long run—so don’t forget to give yourself some props for attempting to understand yourself and your loved ones a little better.

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