• Amy Bishop, MS, MFT

how to apologize when you did nothing wrong


Imagine this. Ben and Kelly are in a long term relationship and care deeply about each other. They have a one-year old, Madison, who has just begun walking, Kelly has just received a promotion at work, leading to even more stress, and Ben has felt neglected and unappreciated as a partner and parent. While at work, Kelly receives a reminder about tomorrow’s potluck and sends Ben a quick message:


Kelly: “I forgot I said I’d bring something for the potluck tmw. Can you pick up some tomatoes and mozzarella 2nite?”

Ben: “Yes”

Kelly: “K!”


Later that night, while holding the baby, Kelly watches Ben unload the groceries and her anxiety grows as she waits for Ben to unbag her requested items. Finally, he puts away the last of the groceries, and her anxiety turns to rage. “Where are the things I asked you for? Did you seriously freaking forget them?” she asks sternly.

Ben’s alarm system kicks in. He knows this feeling well, and he hates to admit he let Kelly down, and his defenses go up. “Crap. Yes I did. But jeez Kelly, don’t yell at me like you’re my mother. Chill out”

They quickly spiral into loud blaming and attack. Before either of them recognizes what’s going on, Kelly takes the baby to her room and Ben goes to the garage to fiddle with his tools. Both are angry and filled with unrest. Kelly sits on the floor playing with Madison, trying to keep tears in. How could he forget? It’s like he doesn’t even care about all the pressure I’m under. Now I’ll have to stop at the store before work, and I’m already not getting enough sleep as it is.

In the garage, Ben exhales sharply. When did she become so unforgiving? Doesn’t she see I’m doing everything I can for this family? She doesn’t even appreciate that I’M the one getting groceries every time now. There’s no room for me to make a mistake without her yelling.

We’ve all been there, and chances are your partner has too: you feel indignant that you didn’t do anything wrong, yet your partner is withdrawing, yelling, or maybe crying. You may even think THEY are the ones that messed up, so why are they mad at you?

The problem with this scenario isn’t that Ben forgot the items Kelly requested, nor that Kelly became upset, though the situation would have been a lot better if either one of them hadn’t misstepped. The problem is that as they separate and become obstinate in their stance, they are prioritizing themselves over the relationship.

In their own attempts to “win,” they both lose.

Now that they are in this stalemate, it can last days or longer--adding to the trench that seems ever growing between them; or, it can last a few minutes and actually become an opportunity for connection. In order for the latter to happen, one of them needs to approach softly. Although neither believes they did anything wrong, when they approach leading with an apology, it can turn the evening around. Though there are many different ways to do this, here’s one way it could look:

Ben: **knocks softly on Madison’s door, letting Kelly know he’s entering** Hey, I don’t like this feeling of not spending time together. Can I sit down with you?

Kelly: **nods yes**

Ben: “Look, I really am sorry that I forgot the tomatoes and cheese. I know you have a lot on your plate and you’re trying to make a good impression at work. I’m sure that summer salad you make would have been a really big hit with everyone.”

Kelly: **softening, but not completely** “It’s not even that I’m trying to make a good impression, but maybe that’s part of it. I’m just so tired. I know I can buy something else in the morning, but I’m just so exhausted already.” A tear drops down her cheek.

Ben: **wipes away the tear** "I know hun. Me too. But I tell you what, how about I put Madison to sleep tonight? I know you enjoy that time with her, but that way you can go to sleep a little earlier. Would that be helpful?"

Kelly: **Nods yes** "Thanks."

Already, this feels better, but it’s not over. If Kelly were on her best game, she’d acknowledge that Ben felt hurt too. But feeling tired and emotionally drained, she begins to get up. Ben could leave it, but because the conversation has felt safe, he continues.

Ben: “Hey Kel, I know there’s a lot going on, but can we also acknowledge that you yelled at me when it really wasn’t needed? It feels crappy.”

Kelly: “You’re right. I’m sorry Ben. It just felt so big in the moment, and I wanted you to know how upset I was. But I shouldn’t have yelled. I’ll try not to, okay?”

Ben: **not feeling totally acknowledged** “It’s okay to let me know you’re upset, but just come to me with these things okay? Let me know when you’re feeling so sleep-deprived and I’ll try to step in a little more. It’s almost like I’m a butler or assistant sometimes. I need to know you appreciate my what I'm doing here.”

Kelly: **touches his shoulder and talks softly** "Oh babe, that’s not what I want you to feel. Really, I do notice everything you do for me and Madison and the house. Hey... look at me.." **she makes sure he is making eye contact to hear the next part**. "I mean it when I say you are so important in our lives. I love you. And of course I appreciate everything you do.” **Seeing he believes her she continues playfully with a smile and wink** “Just next time remember the tomatoes.”


This scenario of repair could easily be flipped with Kelly approaching Ben in the garage. It doesn’t matter who starts the conversation, but the goal for this couple is to have the conversation, and there are many things that made it go well:

  • It happened quickly.

  • They apologized for exactly what went wrong, something I commonly refer to as impact vs intention. While Ben obviously did not intend to forget, it still had an impact on Kelly, and that is what he apologized for; And, they both clarified the impact of the events-- what exactly it is that they feel hurt by, so the partner can acknowledge that particular part.

  • when it made sense to, as a coupl they noted what they would try to do better in the future.

  • They both utilized the soothing properties of touch.

Learning how to repair well is a common part of my couple’s work. Using the experiential approach of PACT therapy, I may have couples reenact what little changes they could have made so that an incident could have gone better. This in real-time creates the repair that should have happened, and makes the act of repairing in the future easier, because you’ve already physically and mentally practiced the skills.



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