No one likes to be hurt in relationships. It’s disappointing, painful, and overwhelming. It can feel rejecting, isolating, and confusing. And yet, it happens. Part of being in relationships is getting hurt. (I know, this is not a fun thing to think about. But it’s true and important, so we are talking about it.)
Know that when I talk about “relationships,” I am referring to all kinds of relationships, not just romantic ones. Relationships with neighbors, friends, parents, bosses, siblings, coworkers, children, and in-laws. Relationships involve two, imperfect human beings, which means we sometimes let one another down. This hurt and disappointment is often, though not always, followed by an apology, an admission of wrongdoing, or an acknowledgement of what the person did and how it was hurtful.
Apologies can take the form of “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you” or “I realize what I did was wrong.” They can be an explanation of intent, such as, “I didn’t want to take sides between you and your sister” or “I was trying to make you understand what I was saying.” Apologies can be vulnerable, half-hearted, or somewhere in-between, and they vary widely in their delivery method. Yet as widely as apologies can differ, we seem to have one, over-used, go-to response to these apologies. “It’s ok.”
Your partner says they are sorry for not thinking through how their actions would impact you. “It’s ok.”
Your coworker apologizes for being overly harsh and critical of your idea in the team meeting. “It’s ok.”
Your sibling apologizes for not helping with your parent’s healthcare in a time of crisis. “It’s ok.”
Your child says they are sorry for hitting a classmate at school. “It’s ok.”
Your friend apologizes for gossiping about you with a shared acquaintance. “It’s ok.”
I am not such a big fan of this response. “It’s ok,” seems to imply that all is right and all is forgiven. “It’s ok,” is often dismissive of the hurt and minimizing of the impact. “It’s ok,” sounds overly simplistic for a likely complex hurt. “It’s ok,” often leads us to absorb quite a bit of hurt and resentment, which will likely show up at a later date in the relationship.
Here are three, additional ways to respond to apologies, besides, “It’s ok.”
“I appreciate your apology.” This is a way to convey warmth and gratitude for the apology, while still honoring the emotional impact the hurt had. This response often captures that you can see that the apology may have been difficult for the other person, and you want to show appreciation for their vulnerability and ownership of their role in the hurt.
“I hear you.” This communicates that you literally heard the apology and are taking it in. This is often helpful in times when you are skeptical of the apology or not ready to let your guard down enough to engage in a deeper discussion. I don’t use this response often, but when I can’t use one of the other options included in this list, I lean on, “I hear you.”
“I accept your apology.” This takes the previous two statements a step further, moving beyond recognition, communicating a heartfelt reception and integration of the apology. When I want to convey that I’m ready to move past the hurt in a meaningful way, I lean on this response.
This is not to say that you can’t ever say, “It’s ok.” You totally can. However, I reserve the, “It’s ok,” response for times when I am truly, 99% unimpacted by the other person’s actions. “I’m sorry I forgot to text back; I’m sorry I am late; I’m sorry I bumped into you; I’m sorry I forgot to return the book you loaned me.” These actions don’t typically impact me in a deep way, so a short and casual response feels appropriate.
Hurt is a natural part of relationships, and while we hope to minimize the occurrence of this pain, it does happen. How we respond in these moments of pain and hurt are critical, and responding to apologies offers us an amazing opportunity to be intentional, reducing the amount of hurt and resentment that we hang onto in relationships, leading to healthier and more long-lasting relationships.
So what do you think; will you give it a go? Will you challenge yourself to respond to apologies in a more intentional and meaningful way?