How to apologize in 5 steps

A key skill for communication in a relationship is knowing how to apologize. What most people don’t know is that the key to apologizing well isn’t just saying “I’m sorry” and meaning it. Owning up to your mistakes is a big part of an apology (and the most challenging)–at the same time, to turn the upset into something productive and completely move on you need to bring subtle levels of soothing and clarity to the situation. In other words, it’s time to bring out the big guns: the 5-Step apology sequence.

Step 1: Express Regret

The first step of how to apologize is to honestly and clearly express how sorry you are to have hurt your spouse. Acknowledging the pain your partner is feeling will help her to dissolve that pain. Start with a simple “I’m sorry…”

Step 2: Accept responsibility

Yes, you did something to hurt him. No matter what your intentions were, your actions caused pain. Detail what you see as  your part in the upset. For example, “I’m sorry that I drank so much at your office holiday party.” Acknowledging your mistake is both a sign of great personal strength and a key element in turning negative moments into positive ones.

Step 3: Clarify that it wasn’t intentional

Say clearly that you did not mean to hurt your spouse. For example: “…I never for a moment intended to get drunk and embarrass you like that. That was awful.” This 3rd step in how to apologize has major healing power: when someone hurts us intentionally (or at least, we believe intentionally) we harden ourselves with defensive anger to make sure they don’t hurt us again. Knowing that the injury was an accident allows us to relax and move on.

How to apologize
Learn how to apologize the right way and avoid lingering anger.

Step 4: Explain the circumstances

If the hurt wasn’t intentional, then how did it happen? Describe what you believe contributed to the incident: “Mark kept mixing me drinks and I felt I had to take them out of politeness…plus I was feeling nervous meeting so many new people. I went over my limit without even realizing it.”

Remember, these aren’t excuses: they’re elements of the whole picture. Knowing what led to your mistake or the misunderstanding will help you avoid it in the future. Also, steer wide and clear of blaming your partner for your behavior as an explanation. If your actions were partly a result of something that your spouse did, frame it with a safe “When you…..I felt….” Example: “And when you pulled me aside and told me how important it was to make a good impression at the party, I felt even more nervous and drank more.”

Step 5: Repair the damage

Finish up the how to apologize sequence by fixing the problem or offering something in return for the damage: “How about if I call Mark and apologize? I also promise that I’ll never have more than one drink at an office event again. I’ll just hold one and sip it slowly the whole night. If you see me drink more, we can leave immediately.”


The sign of a good apology is that it leads to a discussion of all sorts of underlying issues. The best apologies can change the way you interact with your spouse and leave your marriage stronger and healthier. For more help and some fun activities on how to apologize, check out the PO2 chapter Cleaning Up After Upsets.