Apologizing vs. Asking For Forgiveness :: The Difference and Why It Matters

Apologizing vs. Asking For Forgiveness :: The Difference and Why It Matters

In the beginning of last year, I shared a post about how my spouse and I fight with our hands — a method we use to stay connected during an argument. What I forgot to mention in that post is the second most important tip for couples: don’t stop at “I’m sorry.” Ask for forgiveness, too.

That might seem redundant to some; I know for me it definitely did. How is saying “I’m sorry” different than “please forgive me?” I’ll be honest, I had never given this question much thought before — I didn’t even know to ask it — until my husband and I had been together for quite some time. He was the one to introduce this phrase into our vernacular, but I didn’t truly understand the impact it had on our relationship until I began individual therapy.

About two years ago, I was updating my therapist on a disagreement my husband and I had the week before. As I was telling the conclusion, she asked me how I felt about where we landed. I said something like, “I’m fine with it. Like really, genuinely neutral about it. Especially when he asked me to please forgive him for the way he spoke to me earlier that day. After that, hearing his perspective was a lot easier.”

A couple holding hands.

She smiled and made quite a big deal about this bit of information I had off-handedly provided: “he asked you to forgive him? He specifically said what for, as well?” I nodded. She excitedly clapped her hands and said,

“YES YES YES! Healthy communication! Accountability! Validation! How wonderful!”

While I was smiling along with her, I was a bit confused by her very enthused response.

“I guess I hadn’t really thought of it that way before. I didn’t realize that’s why it was easier to talk to him afterward — he didn’t just apologize. He asked me to forgive him for his actions, too.”

My therapist pointed out: “Absolutely, but also, saying you’re sorry isn’t about the person you hurt. It’s all about you, and making yourself feel better for whatever hurt you’ve caused or wrong you’ve done. It has nothing to do with the other person. But asking for forgiveness and naming the specific action/inaction that caused the hurt? Now that’s an apology. That is truly giving the hurt party control of the situation, and making it about them, not about yourself.”

When I say my entire perspective shifted at that moment, there is zero exaggeration. I had never considered the amount of vulnerability it takes to not only apologize but also ask the other person to forgive. Asking that question means you have to be okay with the potential answer; because the truth is, the hurt party has every right to say something like “no,” “I need space right now,” and/or “I’m not ready.”

When we simply say “I’m sorry,” what options of response does the hurt party have? To say “it’s okay” when it really isn’t okay at all? By doing this, we take away the hurt person’s power in the name of protecting ourselves from the shame of what we’ve done or didn’t do. Are we truly apologetic if we are ultimately more concerned for our own feelings than for theirs?

Needless to say, I made a deliberate effort from that moment on to ask my partner for forgiveness when I’ve hurt him, the same way he always does for me. While I had picked up the habit from him before this, I wasn’t truly aware of the meaning of it, and upon further self-reflection, realized I had been using this phrase only in situations in which I was okay with the potential outcome. Ever since, I’ve been asking for forgiveness when the moment calls for it — regardless of my own discomfort. Our marriage is stronger ten-fold for it; in our experience, vulnerability is the foundation of trust.

A couple deep in conversation.

Asking for forgiveness isn’t limited to each other in our house, either. We also ask our children for forgiveness when we’ve backtracked in our gentle parenting journey in a moment of frustration. Again, the results are staggering: our children aren’t forced to awkwardly say “it’s okay,” when clearly it is not, and we are modeling for them how to truly apologize and take accountability for their actions with their peers.

We also reinforce a third part of apologizing: changing your behavior. If you don’t intend on altering your behavior going forward, then do not apologize. “I’m sorry” doesn’t mean a thing if you continue the hurtful behavior. A sincere apology = action.

Hearing a small, three-year-old voice unsolicitedly say, “I’m sorry for yelling at you, Mommy. Do you please forgive me?” is quite jaw-dropping and heartwarming, to say the least.

Next time you find yourself in a situation in which you are the one who must repair the damage, try asking instead of telling. Showing the other person you are willing and capable of being vulnerable with them is the ultimate expression of trust and love!

Cailin Allain
Cailin was born in Metairie, but moved to Slidell at five years old and never left! She is now raising her three daughters, Genevieve (Evie, 5, highly intelligent, brutally honest, hysterical), Josephine (Jo, 4, intuitive, brilliant, fiery), and Bernadette (Bettye, 2, smarty pants, no sense of fear, doesn’t believe in rules), with her husband, Andy (her favorite human), in Olde Towne Slidell. Cailin received her bachelor’s degree in English with a concentration in Creative Writing and a minor in Political Science from LSU, and her J.D./D.C.L from the Paul M. Hebert Law Center at LSU Law. She has her own practice, Law Office of Cailin K. Allain, LLC, and is currently navigating the ins and outs of expanding her business while working from home. When she’s not working, raising babies, or dancing in the kitchen with her husband, you can find her curled up in bed with a good book/comfort movie, some chocolate, and hot tea. On the weekends, Cailin enjoys going to concerts and comedy shows with her husband and any one (or all!) of her six siblings, and hanging out with her in-laws in Bay St. Louis.


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