I was a bystander in a somewhat heated interaction recently and listened as one of the individuals said, “I’m sorry, but….” I’ve thought a lot about that qualified apology since then and I’ve come to the conclusion that an apology that is qualified isn’t really an apology at all.

I’m talking about the type of qualification that reverses the impact of the apology:

  • I’m sorry that I was late to meet you, but the dog got loose and it took me 15 minutes to catch him.
  • I’m sorry that I didn’t call you when I said I would, but my phone had died and I didn’t have my charger with me.
  • I’m sorry that I hurt your feelings when I said that, but I’m just a blunt person and it’s in my nature.
  • I’m sorry that I yelled at you, but you really frustrated me when you left the toilet seat up.

I could make a really long list and get more and more serious with the examples, but I’ll spare you. The thing that I have noted, though, is that the “but” on the apology – or any other qualifier for that matter – is really a way of passing the blame and failing to take responsibility for the action that requires the apology – failing to acknowledge the wrong that was done, whether it was malicious or not. You may be thinking that this is limited to excuse-making teenagers, but most of us are guilty of it. Adding the qualifier makes us feel a little better about our mistake and shifts the blame just enough for us to avoid real guilt. The problem is, our apology is not heart-felt. A qualifier on our apology just indicates that we don’t understand the point-of-view of the recipient, we are failing to approach the situation with compassion, and we aren’t accepting full responsibility for our actions and the hurt that we caused.

I’ve noted that qualifiers can be subtle:

  • I’m sorry that you misinterpreted my flirtation for interest. [The blame is placed on the recipient of the “apology” because of the misinterpretation].
  • I’m sorry that you felt that way because that’s not what I intended. [Again, the blame is placed on the recipient of the “apology” because the actions weren’t correctly interpreted].
  • I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it that way/I didn’t do it on purpose/I didn’t mean to hurt you. [Whether or not the hurt was intentional isn’t the issue – most of us don’t set out to be malicious. Apologizing is about taking responsibility for the hurt caused and making amends for it. It’s not the time for defending our own behavior.]
  • I’m sorry that I am such a horrible friend/mother/daughter/etc. [An “apology” laden with gross exaggeration or sarcasm can simply indicate that it’s given out of obligation without a clear understanding of the wrong committed].

Having some time to think about the qualified apology that I overheard has caused me to consider about what a real apology sounds like and its importance in communication and relationships. We’ve probably all had a relationship somewhere along the way that was never “right” again because of some disagreement that was unresolved or an apology that wasn’t delivered as expected. Sometimes I’d like to think that getting out of high school made me mature enough to have real conversations about hard things, but communication is still challenging for adults too! I believe, if we’re really honest with ourselves, that just saying, “I’m sorry,” without any additional commentary is a terribly hard thing to do! We want to defend ourselves, we want to explain it away, we want to pass the blame, but ultimately all that accomplishes is that it makes us feel better about ourselves, and the recipient of the qualified apology doesn’t feel as if their position was really understood. If we really understood the depth of the hurt we caused from the other perspective, and fully accepted our part in causing the pain (whether it was intentional or not), we would die to ourselves, forgetting our own need to save face, and simply say, “I’m sorry.”

How much better could our relationships be if we’d quit making excuses for our behavior and started taking responsibility for how our behavior affects those around us? Better relationships with our friends, coworkers, family, lovers… even our Lover?

I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes my confessions to God sound like this:

  • Please forgive me for that decision, God, but I just got caught up in the moment.
  • Please forgive me for losing my temper with my coworker, God, but after the morning You know I had, it was the last straw.
  • Please forgive me… but…

When this thought occurred to me, I had to ask myself: Do I really understand that when I’m confessing to God, that I’m confessing things that have hurt Him? Do I know – really know – that my sins grieve God? If I’m qualifying my confessions to God with an excuse or a lame explanation, am I really taking full responsibility for what I’ve done?

This year I’m learning about letting God be my Lover (see also: my blog entitled “Lover”). If I’m going to let Him be that, then I’m going to have to work on my open, honest, compassionate, and heart-felt communication with Him, even when it’s terribly hard. That’s not going to be easy, but I can see how improving my communication with God will allow me an even more intimate relationship with Him. I’d like that, and I think that’s part of that which He has for me.