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The Fastest Road to Forgiveness

They were sitting in my office when the wife said,

"I'd forgive him if he would just apologize."

He responded, "I did apologize."

"You did not."

"I told you I was sorry," he said.

"That is not an apology," she responded.

Have your apologies often fallen flat? Do your spouse's apologies connect and motivate you to forgive? Or are you married to someone who seldom apologizes?

As children, we learned about what it means to apologize. When little Johnny pushed Mary down the stairs, Mother said, "Tell her you're sorry." So Johnny said, "I'm sorry," even if he wasn't. As an adult, Johnny's concept of apologizing is probably saying, "I'm sorry." However, his wife, Julie, learned to say, "I was wrong. Will you please forgive me?" To her, that's what it means to apologize. So when her husband says, "I'm sorry," in her mind he hasn't apologized. He may be sincere, but his sincerity isn't getting through to his wife. After two years of research, Dr. Jennifer Thomas and I discovered that people have different apology languages. A person may be sincerely apologizing and yet, the apology isn't perceived as sincere because it's spoken in the wrong language. We discovered five distinct languages of apology.

  • Expressing Regret: "I am sorry." "I feel badly that my behavior has hurt you so deeply." This language identifies with the emotions of the offended party.
  • Accepting Responsibility: "I was wrong." Name your mistake and accept fault. "I should not have done that. There's no excuse. What I did was wrong."
  • Making Restitution: "What could I do to make this right? How can I make amends to you? How could I restore your confidence in me?"
  • Genuine Repentance: "I'll try not to do that again." Repentance doesn't make rash promises, such as "I promise I'll never do it again if you'll forgive me." However, repentance does express the desire to change one's behavior. "I don't want this to continue happening. Help me think of ways I can change my behavior."
  • Requesting Forgiveness: "Will you please forgive me?" This language expresses humility. "I realize I can't restore this relationship alone. It will require mercy on your part, but my sincere desire is that you will forgive me and we can continue our relationship."

If you listen to most apologies, you'll discover that the apologizer is speaking only one or two of the apology languages. If these aren't the languages of the offended person, the apology will sound hollow. He may choose to forgive you, but he'll have lingering doubt about your sincerity. It isn't enough to be sincere. You must express your sincerity in a language your spouse can understand.

How do you discover your spouse's primary apology language? Ask your spouse, "When you apologize to someone, what do you typically say or do? When someone apologizes to you, what do you expect to hear him say or do?" Her answers to those two questions will likely reveal her primary apology language.

One husband said, "My wife and I speak different languages. Mine is expressing regret. When she says to me, 'I'm sorry. I realize I hurt you and I feel badly about that,' that's all I need to hear. I'm ready to forgive her. But that isn't what my wife wants to hear in an apology. She wants me to express a willingness to make restitution. When I say, 'How can I make this up to you?' I have truly apologized. Saying, 'I'm sorry,' isn't enough for her. Learning to speak her apology language has greatly improved our relationship."

A few caveats

Warning: You may find it difficult to speak your spouse's apology language. It may be a language you didn't learn as a child. The good news is it can be learned as an adult! Learning to speak the apology language of your spouse is time well invested. It will remove the emotional barriers more quickly and more deeply.

Warning: Remove the word but from your apologies. When you say, "I'm sorry, but if you hadn't …. then, I wouldn't …" you've negated your apology. You end up blaming your spouse for your wrong behavior. Now you owe a second apology!

One lady said to me, "For 42 years I've been apologizing to my husband in the wrong language. Do you think I should change now?"

"It's never too late to do it right," I suggested.

A month later she said to me, "I've been apologizing in his language and it really makes a difference. He's smiling more, and I feel closer to him."

"Was it worth the effort to learn to speak a new apology language?" I asked.

"Absolutely," she said. "We're never too old to learn."

I wish every couple had that attitude.

Gary D. Chapman, Ph.D. co-author of The Five Languages of Apology(Northfield Publishing), has been married 45 years to Karolyn.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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Forgiveness; Hurts; Marriage; Reconciliation
Today's Christian Woman, Spring, 2007
Posted September 12, 2008

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