Why “Sorry” Is Not Good Enough

By Fiona Howard on October 05, 2011


The transgression has been done. She expresses hurt and loss of trust, and he feels remorseful and says what is widely considered to be the magic words to heal an offense: I am sorry. She may initially feel in pain but eventually accepts the apology, makes up with him, and life is great again—until the next day, week, or month, when the sin is remembered and the pain is felt all over again. She feels bad again, but this time, he cannot understand why the hurt is still there when he has already said “sorry”. He gets mad and in turn, he appears insensitive and prideful to her. This is a vicious cycle that can be avoided once we understand why merely saying “sorry” is not good enough.

What It Means to Offend Someone

According to a study done by De Cremer, Pillutla, and Folmer from the Erasmus University, the Netherlands, found out that people actually have a misconception that an apology is enough to heal an offense—that is, until they actually receive the apology and discover that they do not feel much better afterwards. Why is an apology not enough to bring closure to a big breach of trust?

It should be understood that when a relationship between a couple is marred by an offense, a dangerous loss of trust happens. The one who got hurt loses a solid basis for the relationship and becomes unsure how to go about the relationship worrying when the person will hurt him/her next, how much pain will be felt the next time he/she is hurt, and if he/she can trust the person NOT to do the transgression again.

What Is An Apology Made Of?

The offender should understand it will take time for the hurt party to heal. It is never enough to say sorry and end it at that precisely because what the offended person needs is an assurance that the incident won’t happen again. What else can the offender do after saying “sorry”?

  • An apology consists of three things: acknowledgment of the offense (I admit, I did it), saying sorry (I am deeply sorry about what I have done), and the most important part, the action plan (what  can I do to make you feel better/what can I do to make up for it?) The presence of these three in an apology makes the offended person feel that something can still be done to rebuild the trust that was broken.
  • Be patient with the hurt person. The person who was offended may feel a lot of pain, and it can take a while for this pain to subside. It is important that the offender is always there for him/her as the healing process continues. Hold the person into a tight hug when he/she starts feeling bad again, say the apology over and over again without sounding impatient, and reassure the person as much as needed that the offense will never happen again in the future.
  • If the transgression done has something to do with infidelity, the person who did the betrayal can suggest an action plan in order to help the betrayed regain the trust again. Some transgressors of this kind of offense go as far as sending their partners MMS pictures of where they are currently, giving up total rights to their emails and mobile phone passwords, giving their partners a blow-by-blow account about how their day went and who they were with (with proof from friends), etc, until their partners are eventually reassured that the infidelity was just a lapse of judgment and that they are still loved deeply.

Rebuilding a broken relationship takes a lot of hard work and willingness especially from the offender. One thing just needs to be clear—saying sorry without taking action is like advertisements without solid proof of credibility. The path to healing starts with a complete apology and the desire to follow through with patience, reassurance, and expression of love in different ways.

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