I have a letter of apology in the back of my journal that I never sent. I wrote it to someone who dumped me after nearly nine years of friendship. Our break was nothing like the petty, gossipy fights I had in childhood, or even the slow drifting apart so common in adulthood. Instead, it just happened one day, sudden as a lightning strike. Or at least it seemed that way to me; they may have heard thunder from miles away, but I’ll never know.
I recently asked another friend if I should send the letter, or at least a text—some kind of signal that the door was still open on my end, that I wanted to make things right or at least get some closure. But she wisely reminded me that it wasn’t my job to appeal my friend’s decision, it was my job to respect it. So I do. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t spent many nights playing the ending back in my head, trying to see our disagreement it from their point of view, putting more compassionate words in my mouth, trying to make it all work out differently. How could I have been a better friend to them? What could I have done to show them how much I cared?
While investigating the question, I came across the lesser-known sibling of love languages: apology languages. According to Dr. Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas, the creators of both, there are different ways of saying “I’m sorry,” just as there are different ways to say “I love you.” And each of us may require different words and actions to heal when we’ve been wronged ourselves. Understanding the languages of love and trust in our relationships is crucial to keeping them healthy, and knowing how best to apologize is just as important. Though not directly correlated to love languages, the five apology languages have been offering me clues as to how to approach relationship repair.
Often a sincere apology will contain more than one of these languages, so it can be helpful to gain “fluency” in at least a few. (There are worse things to be than an emotional polyglot.)
The first apology language described by Chapman and Thomas is the act of saying (or writing) the words “I’m sorry.” It may seem, at first glance, too rudimentary to qualify as a language (it did to me), but they say the impact of a simple, direct apology shouldn’t be underestimated. Saying “I’m sorry” comes easier to some than others, and the need to hear it can vary too. In some situations, an apology like this is all that’s needed, but in others it needs to be paired with different languages to be effective. For example, attempting to make restitution, another language, without offering an apology can often ring hollow or make someone feel like you’re trying to buy their forgiveness, while saying you’re sorry for something without accepting responsibility or attempting to right the wrong may not be enough.
Might sound something like… I need to apologize for the way I ignored your suggestions, I wish I’d been a better listener.
In this apology language, it’s important for the apologizer to directly acknowledge the impact their actions and words have had on the person they’ve wronged, rather than making a slew of excuses or blaming circumstances. This can be as simple as changing, “I’m sooo sorry I’m late, the traffic was nuts and I couldn’t find parking!” to “I’m so sorry you had to wait for me–I should have left earlier to get here.” Or it may be as nuanced as recognizing that abuses committed against you don’t give you free license to commit the same to others. The key is to make sure the burden of apology stays with the one who is apologizing–don’t make the mistake of creating distance with phrasing like, “I’m sorry you feel that way” when what really needs to be said is, “I’m sorry I made you feel that way.”
Might sound something like… I know that when I yell like that, I’m repeating patterns I learned as a kid, but I don’t want to treat you like that. I need to work on finding better outlets for my anger so I don’t upset you.
Restitution can be complicated, especially since it often involves placing a relative value on something after it has been destroyed. A borrowed dress ruined by melted lipstick in the dryer may be easy to quantify, but when it comes to, say, the trust broken by an affair, it gets more complicated.
Regardless of scale, this apology language is all about finding a way to make it right. Often this manifests in matching the scale of the apology to the original mistake—if a coworker throws you under the bus during a meeting, a private apology from them may not be enough. It’s important to note that in some cases, it’s not actually possible to completely rebalance the scales, or that making good on the promise to do so can take time. But for those whose apology language is based around restitution (myself very much included), there’s no substitute for a good faith effort to repair and rebuild.
Might sound something like… Thank you for taking care of me when I got too drunk at the concert last night. I’m really sorry you weren’t able to relax and enjoy it because of me. I’d love to take you to another show, my treat, and make it up to you.
For this apology language, the key component is changed behavior. Not only must the apologizer acknowledge the wrongness of what they did, they must accompany that acknowledgement with a plan for avoiding the same mistake in the future. For something like forgetting a birthday, this may include telling your friend that you’re putting a recurring event in your calendar for a week beforehand to ensure that you never forget them again, or in more serious contexts, it can take the form of major lifestyle changes like taking steps toward sobriety, cancelling a credit card, or practicing someone’s pronouns before you see them in order to get it right. Where restitution is about fixing the past, repentance is about working to change the future. In other words: What are you going to do to make sure this doesn’t happen again?
Might sound something like… I want you to know that I feel terrible about how I treated you years ago when you came out to me. I didn’t know any better at the time, but I know now that my ignorance and assumptions were wrong and shitty and hurtful. I’d like to rekindle our friendship if you’d give me a chance.
This one is interesting to me because, in my own emotional landscape, I have a tough time understanding this as a language on its own. If someone has hurt me and wants me to forgive them, I’d want to see them expressing it in the other languages—expressing regret, accepting responsibility, presenting a strong plan for restitution, including plans for the future—before I considered it. (I’ll admit writing that out makes me self-conscious about being high-maintenance, but reading it again as if someone else wrote it, it sounds reasonable.)
But what resonates for me in Chapman’s explanation of requesting forgiveness is that although the apology (and it’s accompanying restitution and repentance) is the responsibility of the wrongdoer, the power of forgiveness is solely at the discretion of the wronged party. Asking for forgiveness is about giving power back to the person we have hurt. When we earnestly ask for forgiveness, we’re acknowledging that the other person may need something more from us; effort, understanding, or time to reach a place of resolution, and we express willingness to make up the difference on their terms. It allows them to set the timeline for when, or even if, goodwill can be restored in the relationship.
Might sound something like… I know that there’s no excuse for the way I betrayed your trust, but I’m doing my best to be worthy of it now. Can you ever forgive me?
I miss my friend. I wish that I’d been better to them, and that they would give me the opportunity to make it right, but I understand that day may never come. Though we often think of apology and forgiveness as opposite sides of the same emotional equation, the offering of one does not ensure the reception of the other. Asking for forgiveness does not guarantee that it will be given, and no matter how good we think our apology is, or how much effort we think we’ve put into learning and utilizing each other’s love languages and apology languages, sometimes we’re still unable to say what we want to say.
I’m keeping the letter, but I’m learning to let go of the hope that I’ll ever send it. Instead, I’m letting it remind me of the ways I want to be a better friend in the future. It’s helping me remember to take responsibility for the ways I’ve hurt people, and that intent doesn’t outweigh impact. But most of all, it’s helping me remember that relationship repair can’t be done alone.
Graphic by Coco Lashar