Perhaps you’ve heard of the five love languages, the idea popularized by Gary Chapman. In his best-selling book "The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate," he points out that we all show and receive love in five distinct ways: acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, words of affirmation and physical touch.
Did you know this concept applies to how we apologize to loved ones, too? We caught up with Jennifer Thomas, PhD, co-author of "The 5 Apology Languages: The Secret to Healthy Relationships" along with Chapman, to better understand how apologizing varies from person to person.
“To date, we’ve asked 90,000 people, ‘What do you most want to hear when people apologize?’ And a second question, ‘When people apologize to you, what do you expect them to say or do,'" Thomas, tells TODAY.com.
“Their answers to these questions fell into five categories. We coined the term ‘apology languages’ for these five different ways of saying, ‘my bad,'" she adds.
As Thomas puts it, each apology language is a separate key. “If you have a key and it unlocks one door, you might be tempted to use it on every door, but that would be foolish and would only end up in frustration,” she says. In other words, "we need to tailor our apologies to the needs of the person who has been offended."
Read on to learn more about the differences between the five apology languages, plus how you can find yours (and your partner's).
The five apology languages
Thomas and Chapman defined them as follows:
- Saying “I’m sorry:” Expressing regret. Talk about their feelings. Show that you understand the impact you had on them emotionally — frustration, disappointment, fear, and so on. Be specific.
- Saying “I was wrong:” Accepting responsibility. In a manner of speaking, submit a guilty plea. Don’t try to defend your actions. If your action or inaction was inexcusable, say so. Always be specific. Most importantly, don’t try to pass the hot potato that we call blame.
- Asking “How can I make it right?:” Making restitution. Offer some type of amends to make them whole again. Then ask whether that would be helpful or if something else might better show them how sincere you are.
- Saying “I’ll take steps to prevent a recurrence:” Planned change. We can’t promise to never make a mistake again, but you can tell them what action you have taken or will take to avoid future problems.
- Asking “Can you find it in your heart to forgive me?:” Requesting forgiveness. For some people, an apology for something that is very serious or a repeated problem requires this humbling question. And be patient — they might need some time for you to begin to rebuild their trust.
Why it’s important to know your apology language
“Knowing your apology language is important to find healthy ways of communication but also to be able to perceive particular ways of communication when it comes to delicate situations such as hurtful ones,” Callisto Adams, Ph.D., a dating and relationship expert, tells TODAY.com.
Perspective is key in any healthy relationship — and without understanding your apology languages, you and your partner may not be able to see the situation from the other person's eyes. “Whether you’re on the receiving end or vice versa, you tend to have a linear way of seeing the situation. Understanding that your apology language is setting up the conditions on how you’re feeling or behaving can be tremendously helpful for you to attain a healthier approach to those delicate situations," she says.
What’s more, it helps you realize that just because you don’t initially view an apology as sincere, it doesn’t mean it isn’t. For example, Thomas says some people were taught that saying sorry isn’t enough while other people were praised for saying “I’m sorry” and nothing else. “Our readers tell us that our book is helping them to open up about such misunderstandings — rather than criticizing each other and having the same old arguments," she explains.
How to find your apology language
Finding your apology language involves a straightforward, two-pronged approach.
First, Thomas says to ask yourself: “What do you most want to hear when people apologize?” Then, consider this question: “When people apologize to you, what do you expect them to say or do?” Your answers will likely reveal your preferred apology language, according to Thomas. (Better yet, take this free "Apology Language Test.")
Adams suggests spending some time reflecting on the times you’ve been hurt and caused hurt. “Look at what you looked for to feel better or what you were willing to do for the other(s) in those times,” she says. A therapist can also help you unpack this.
How to understand your partner's apology language
First things first: It’s totally normal to have a different apology language from your romantic partner, family members and other loved ones.
“It’s like learning a new language or dialect. With practice, you can learn to give apologies that will really resonate with them," Thomas says.
If your partner doesn't adhere to your primary apology language, Thomas recommends giving them partial credit for their effort and sincerity.
Adams also underscored the importance of trying — key word: trying — to comprehend your partner's apology language. “This way, you’ll have an easier time understanding how they can be comforted and reassured when you hurt them, but also you’ll be able to see truthfulness in their apology when they’re the ones apologizing."
Struggling to make sense of it all? Adams suggests talking to a therapist or sitting your partner down to discuss how improvements can be made (and no, not when you're in the middle of an argument).