How to Apologize to Your Ex

Scrabble game pieces spelling out the phrase "I AM SORRY"

Apologizing can be hard, especially if you have a contentious relationship with the person you are apologizing to. If you want to have a polite (even friendly) relationship with your ex in the future, though, owning up to and apologizing for past mistakes is one of the most important ways to make that happen.

A genuine apology allows you to take responsibility for your actions and validate the other person’s feelings and experiences. A genuine apology also allows for the relationship to have a future. According to research, an apology can be good for the recipient’s health, reducing heart rate and cardiac symptoms. An apology can, says the same research, also foster forgiveness.

Without apologizing, you risk tensions rising or grudges growing stronger. By apologizing, you acknowledge that you wronged the other person, and you invite them to begin repairing the relationship with you to make it more cordial moving forward.

Sound tricky? It doesn’t have to be. That is if you follow the steps below.

Identify what you did wrong.

The first step of apologizing is to identify the part you played in the situation you now face. Your ex may tell you directly what you did, but they also may not. It is important to think back on what you may have done and put yourself in your ex’s shoes. If you were them, would what you did make you feel poorly? How might you react if you were them?

By identifying the words or behavior in question, you allow yourself to come to terms with what you are apologizing for. You are able to mentally anchor your apology to a specific event, which often makes it easier to talk about. Instead of feeling that you need to apologize out of guilt or defense, you can apologize because you know and understand what you did that caused harm, deliberately or not.

Explain why you are apologizing and what you are sorry for in the specific situation or for a pattern of behaviors.

One of the cornerstones of a genuine apology is to explain what you did wrong and why you are sorry for having done it. Once you have identified what you did, let your ex know that you recognize that a particular event or action hurt them and then apologize for the action and its effects.

This might sound like, “I know that it hurt you when I called you selfish,” or “I made the situation about me, and that wasn’t right.”

This acknowledgment also allows you to establish that you mean your apology. Instead of just saying, “I’m sorry,” you acknowledge what it was you did that hurt your ex.

Direct language that does not attribute blame to the other person is the best course of action here. Clearly establish what it is that you are apologizing for, but do not shift blame for your actions onto your ex. Doing so will only undermine your words.

You may feel that there was a good reason for why you did what you did or that your ex is partially to blame. Though there are multiple sides to any conflict, a true apology clearly establishes that you contributed to the conflict, even if someone else did, too.

Saying what you are sorry for may sound like, “I am sorry that I hurt you,” or “I know that I said some very hurtful things, and I apologize for that. It was wrong, and there was no excuse for how I acted.”

Correct your behavior and make a plan for the future.

In addition to establishing why you are sorry, you should also tell the other person what you will do differently in the future or ask them what they believe you can do better to fix the problem.

An apology on its own can be helpful in repairing a relationship. But, if you continually make the same mistakes, an apology will ultimately prove hollow. A genuine apology includes a direct plan of action for how you are going to behave differently in the future, thereby addressing the problem at hand.

This does not have to be a complicated plan. A course of action as simple as, “I am sorry that I yelled at you. In the future, when I feel myself getting angry, I will take a few seconds to calm myself before continuing the conversation,” can be a helpful tool.

Other examples of practical plans include:

  • Asking your ex to explain their thoughts or opinion before reacting to them.
  • Focusing on the issue at hand instead of raising tangential issues or other grievances.
  • Taking a break when situations get tense or you feel like you may say something you will regret.

Your plan to correct your behavior should be achievable. Telling your ex that you will never run late again, for instance, is not practical. Saying that you will be more communicative when something comes up, however, is actionable and gets to the root of the problem.

Additionally, ask your ex what they would like from you in the future. They may have an idea of what the two of you can do when issues arise, or they may let you know a detail that you didn’t know previously about the conflict. Including them in your plan allows the two of you to work together and find a solution you can both live with.

Own your mistakes, but remember that relationships and conflicts require more than one person.

Another crucial point to remember when apologizing is that even though you may have done something to offend the other person, the other person can still be at fault. However, this understanding doesn’t release you from apologizing. But it can be helpful to remember that a conflict requires multiple parties in order to exist, so you don’t blame yourself unjustly.

It is not helpful to your future relationship to place the burden of reconciliation or repair fully on one person. Doing so prevents communication and collaboration, two key issues for any healthy future.

If the two of you argued or engaged in unwanted behaviors, the blame may fall on both of you. You may have made statements or engaged in behaviors you regret or that caused harm, and you should apologize for those. In turn, your partner also may have made statements or engaged in behaviors that hurt you, and they, too, should apologize.

Unfortunately, this can be a goal that is easier to set than reach since you cannot control anyone’s behavior but your own. At that point, you would need to evaluate whether this is a situation you can live with going forward or are willing to wait out. The risk is that apology may never come, an inevitability you would also need to face.

Ask for forgiveness, but accept that you may not be forgiven, ever.

Finally, ask for forgiveness. This opens the door for conversation about your relationship and invites the other person to continue having a relationship with you. If you are co-parenting, this is crucial.

Adding the action of asking for forgiveness into the equation, a genuine apology may sound like:

I know you are upset that I was late picking our daughter up and that it caused you stress. I am sorry for running late and for not communicating with her or you. In the future, I will let you know when something comes up so that everyone is on the same page, and I will be more proactive in those situations. I hope you can forgive me.

When you ask for forgiveness, you should also consider that you may not be forgiven, now or ever. Depending on what you are apologizing for, it may be unrealistic for the other person to forgive you right away.

By asking for forgiveness, however, you let your ex know that you are open to a future together, whatever that future may be. A genuine apology isn’t about the other person forgiving you — it is about letting them know that you feel sorry for what you said or did.

Final thoughts …

Apologizing is one of the hardest actions to take in a relationship. Despite this, it is incredibly important, especially if you are co-parenting or are around the other person often. It is critical for a positive experience for all parties, particularly if you have children who are watching and whose well-being depends on your ability to get along with the children’s other parent, even if the relationship isn’t and never will be the same as it once was.

If you follow the above steps, you can apologize to your ex in a meaningful way and begin the work to repair your relationship with them. This looks different for different people — not every instance of relationship repair has to translate to complete reconciliation or reconciliation at all. But what it hopefully means is that you are able to have interactions that allow you to each move forward positively, even if it isn’t together.

At Elise Buie Family Law, we are dedicated to building strong relationships among families, even when families are taking on a new form from what they were previously. After decades of cumulative experience in family and divorce law, we have developed strategies that can improve the quality of your relationship with your ex. Call our Seattle legal team today. 


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