Are you living in an apology cycle?

By Susan Leigh,
updated on Nov 10, 2021

Are you living in an apology cycle?

The word ‘sorry’ can lose all meaning when it becomes a habit, or when it’s used to clean the slate without dealing with the underlying issues. So, it’s time we reviewed our relationship with apologies – you won’t be sorry

Many of us use the word ‘sorry’ frequently throughout the day. Even when we’re innocent, when someone else has bumped into us or made a mistake, we may find that we’re the one apologising. It can become an automatic response, said without thinking.

But when the word ‘sorry’ becomes a habit, it can ultimately reflect badly on us, and start to convey the impression of someone who’s careless, timid, accident-prone, over-cautious, or anxious to avoid confrontation at any cost. Tune-in to those times when you typically apologise, and notice what’s going on. Are you showing yourself in a good light?

There may be circumstances where we find ourselves quickly apologising if someone is rude, or badly behaved, towards us. Did we cause it, are we in some way to blame, what might happen if we don’t defuse the situation?

Likewise, it can be all too easy to slip into an apology cycle, where one person behaves in a brash, quick-tempered way whenever they feel triggered. Afterwards, they may well feel bad as they reflect on the hurt they’ve caused. An apology may follow, which will, no doubt, be sincere, and even accompanied by promises to change, as they deliver a gift or offer to do the chores for a week. If accepted, the matter’s deemed closed, until the next time.

But, might it be helpful to start paying more attention at these times, and reflect on our automatic default response – especially if we realise that we’re regularly apologetic when we’ve nothing to be sorry for? What drives an apology, what prompts us to become regretful about a perceived offence? Or behave increasingly atrociously, knowing that an apology will wipe the slate clean?


A very sorry cycle

When a relationship devolves into an unhelpful cycle of apologising, both sides need to take ownership. They’re both complicit in allowing the situation to continue.

When one person struggles to express themselves, it may be because they’ve been on the receiving end of bad treatment, perhaps dating back to childhood. They may have never seen others resolve their issues, or been encouraged to work through problems, or discuss thoughts and feelings. Anger or frustration may have manifested as they let off steam, or coped with the build-up of stress; often followed by guilt, shame, and remorse.

If they’re someone who goes mute in tense situations, that can cause the environment to become destructive and frustrating. Fear of confrontation is a big issue for many people. Being with someone who behaves badly, or treats them in a hurtful way, can trigger apprehension about the consequences of answering back or disagreeing. Will it be followed by anger, signal the end of the relationship, or will they be blamed? If bad behaviour is followed by either person apologising and demonstrating remorse, both may feel relief that the crisis is over.

Finding your voice

In some households, days of ‘silent treatment’ follow a disagreement, unless a grovelling apology is issued. There can be a ‘here we go again’ acceptance once the cycle is established, but knowing that tensions end once an apology is said, and that things return to normal, can be good enough, even though nothing has been resolved. Any underlying issues have yet again been brushed away, no doubt to resurface in the future.

If anything is ever going to change into a more adult, equal relationship, both sides have to acknowledge their part in this cycle. Knowing that they’ll ‘get away’ with bad behaviour by issuing a few words of appeasement can mean that there are no consequences. However harsh, anything may be said or done when followed by a ‘sorry’.

For things to change, the person on the receiving end has to find their voice and stand up for themselves, have opinions, and be firm. Tolerating bad treatment gives tacit permission for the situation to continue.

Some personal work may be needed to resolve the cycle, to reflect on what past relationship role models were like, what was deemed normal and acceptable, how disagreements and opposing points of view were discussed, and reconciled. Counselling or therapy can improve self-awareness in these situations.

"It’s not a case of never apologising, but simply returning true meaning and intention to that word"

If those early years were fraught – where home or school involved arguing, bullying, or constant tension – remaining silent, keeping the peace, and being quick to apologise may have been deemed the safest option. Any hint of criticism or aggression was felt to be best remedied by a heartfelt apology, the promise to improve, or an offer to do ‘penance’.

It may be that others were regarded as more intelligent, sporty, attractive, rich, worldly-wise, or of a higher social standing, which can be daunting, and mean that an apology is readily delivered whenever there’s the slightest hint of others being irritated or inconvenienced. Working to recognise one’s own skills, talents and successes, perhaps through therapy or mixing with supportive, like-minded people, can help to heal self-doubt and improve both confidence and self-belief.

But equally, while apologising may be regarded by others as a sign of weakness, an admission that we’re flawed or imperfect, saying sorry if we’re in the wrong is often viewed as a positive step, and a sign of strength. Many people respect a person who has the self-confidence and integrity to hold their hand up, admit that they’re wrong, and apologise.

The important thing here is to understand why you’re saying sorry. It’s not a case of never apologising or holding yourself accountable, but simply returning true meaning and intention to that word, and using apologies in a healthier way. Moving into a more mutually respectful relationship allows the pattern of apology cycles to break, which includes finding more positive ways to say sorry – the when, how, and why.

To connect with a counsellor, or to learn more about how and when to apologise, visit counselling-directory.org.uk

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