A Good Apology

Four Steps to Make Things Right


By Molly Howes, PhD

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Through its four essential steps, A GOOD APOLOGY gives groundbreaking advice on how best to make an effective apology toward rebuilding any relationship, for readers of The Body Keeps the Score.

We’ve all done something wrong or made a mistake or insulted someone — even if by accident. We’ve all been hurt and wanted the other person to help us heal. It may be surprising, but the breaches themselves aren’t the real problem; our inability to fix them is what causes us trouble.

In A Good Apology, Dr. Molly Howes uses her experiences with patients in her practice, research findings, and news stories to illustrate the power and importance of a thorough apology. She teaches how we can all learn to craft an effective apology with four straightforward steps.

An apology is a small-scale event between people, but it’s enormously powerful. This comprehensive book gives readers the tools to fix their relationships, make amends, and move forward. With it, you’ll fully understand the meaning and importance of this universal and timeless endeavor: a good apology.


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I am perhaps obsessed with apologies. As a psychologist, I find them crucial in my work with people. I pore over books on the subject and study religious texts. For years, I’ve collected apology stories. I clip them from newspapers, old-school style, and keep them in a box under my desk.

Recently, the stack has grown fast.

During the #MeToo movement, we’ve watched the march of shame across our newsfeeds by high-profile men accused of sexual misconduct. The examination of apologies has become a national pastime and given “I’m sorry” the weight of a political act. Whether they are from heads of state who relay their official remorse for governmental mistreatment of citizens or from well-known figures in front of microphones who regret their deception, sexual misconduct, and other trust-breaking behavior—we tweet and post, debate and dissect the sincerity and effectiveness of these public statements. We’ve made such a sport of apologies that the New York Times has presented us with a “Choose Your Own Public Apology” column with fill-in-the-blank options.1 For all our public dialogue, however, the apologies themselves don’t seem to be getting much better.

Right now, we are in an extended moment of public attention focused on saying “I’m sorry,” but the value of apologies is timeless and universal. We need good ones in our personal lives every bit as much as we need them in public discourse. Each time we face another person’s injury with courage and humility, we heal individual hurt. When we apologize, we restore damaged connections. We reduce our isolation and shame, and we make our relationships stronger. We build a kinder and more civil society.


So, if apologies are so useful and important, why are we so bad at them?

Of the hundreds of patients I’ve worked with, many struggle with how to apologize well—as do many of the people I know outside my practice. I, too, have missed opportunities and made my share of poor attempts to repair mistakes. For a myriad of cultural and psychological reasons, apologizing well is really hard to do. Human perceptual and cognitive biases make seeing our own mistakes and their effects on other people challenging. Most of us labor under misconceptions and myths about apologies, including the idea that our intentions determine our effects on other people. That is, if I didn’t mean to hurt you, you can’t be hurt. Or we subscribe to the now-historic Hollywood notion that “love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Further, we rarely see public figures modeling good apologies.

Many of us make no attempt to apologize when we should, and when we do, it’s often in ways that inflame the situation or, at best, only partially heal the damage. But the good news is that each of us has the capacity to make an effective apology. One of the biggest, most universal roadblocks is a simple lack of technique. That’s why I wrote this book.


My journey toward developing an apology technique began in childhood. In the face of chaos and neglect, including three years I spent in an orphanage, I did what children often do: I tried to control what I could control. When I couldn’t fix the unpredictable world around me, I learned to mend physical things. I replaced errant buttons and glued shattered dishes back together. Even as a child, I had trouble tolerating waste. I held on to broken things long before I learned that relationships, too, can be salvaged rather than discarded.

Although I was unaware of it at the time, that early effort was good preparation for becoming a psychologist. My faith that hurt can be repaired undergirds my approach to psychotherapy as well as my personal philosophy. I serve as a “hope merchant.” I can see possible favorable outcomes, and I can help people journey through thorny terrain to reach them.

Earlier in my career, though, I was at a loss when grappling with the unresolved cracks between people. Just out of college, I worked with a woman who lived in extreme isolation because she couldn’t face the family she’d “let down way too many times.” I was puzzled and frustrated that she didn’t respond to her family’s attempts to connect with her, but I didn’t know how to help her move through her shame. Months later, she killed herself. I’ll never forget the stunning sense of wastefulness I felt. Her life was lost because she couldn’t face and mend what she’d damaged.

Soon after, in graduate school, I worked with a couple who’d spent almost three decades unhappily stewing about the husband’s flirtation with another woman during their first pregnancy. I could teach them to communicate better, but I didn’t know yet how to help them face their stubborn resistance and resentment so that they could heal this foundational wound.

Throughout my training, I met other couples stymied by hurt they couldn’t get past and individuals who were as troubled by their own harmful behavior as they were wounded by others’. Psychotherapy usually addresses a person’s internal experience of hurt, not the pain or guilt from having hurt other people. I found no supervisor I could turn to or book I could consult that focused on the problem of addressing one’s own responsibility for mistakes and wrongdoing.

Again and again, I saw how unhealed hurt between people hardened into bitterness and judgment. I saw how unprocessed guilt darkened into chronic shame and low self-esteem. I saw how rifts between people seemed impossible to reach across and so resulted in unhappiness and loneliness. At its worst, failing to mend relationships led to dangerous levels of isolation.

Public health research suggests that weak social connections can be as harmful to a person’s life span as heavy smoking and more damaging than obesity. The social and emotional support our close relationships provide improves everything from stress management to lung function2 and coronary heart disease.3 Despite the value of relationships to our physical and psychological health, many people do not have or maintain them. In 2018, the United Kingdom appointed its first minister for loneliness to address the needs of the many British citizens who report that they are often or always lonely.4 In the United States, up to 40 percent of Americans over the age of forty-five suffer from chronic loneliness.5 Vivek Murthy, the former US surgeon general, referred to loneliness as “a growing health epidemic.”6


In the 1980s, during my clinical fellowship at Harvard Medical School, I began to encounter ideas that would eventually lead to my apology model. My training occurred during a time of transformational thinking in psychology. New, field-changing research findings challenged Lawrence Kohlberg’s long-dominant theory that a person reached the height of morality when he or she acted according to “universal ethical principles” (a set of internalized, abstract codes of conduct). Carol Gilligan, who had worked at Harvard with Dr. Kohlberg, published her now-famous findings that women held themselves to different standards than the male subjects Dr. Kohlberg had mainly studied. Her female subjects evaluated whether an action was right or wrong according to whether it harmed or helped another person—what Dr. Gilligan called an “ethic of care.”7 Morality was not purely an interior, individual phenomenon, but also a social one based in our connections to others.

At the same time, the theory of self psychology was taking the psychoanalytic world by storm. Psychiatrist Heinz Kohut, a refugee from Nazi Austria, developed a model in which the therapist had to be radically empathic for any hurt the patient experienced in the course of therapy. He argued that the hurt was real and healing it could lead to important progress. The therapist’s task was to listen and empathize in order to help the person heal.8

This was also the era when psychiatrist Jean Baker Miller and her colleagues at Wellesley College’s Stone Center for Research on Women formulated new understandings of both psychological development and psychological health, ones that centered around connections between people. Their “relational” model challenged the conventional understanding that the goal of human development was individuation and that most other people could be considered potential competitors.9

These ideas provided the clinical guideposts I followed in my exploration of how relationships hurt and heal us. Along the way, I became fascinated by the radical courage and care that seemed necessary for mending damaged connections. Across decades, in thousands of hours of psychotherapy sessions, I began to see openings, opportunities for brave souls to recognize an injury they’d caused and to reach across a chasm of hurt toward someone on the other side. With growing hope that interpersonal pain might be reparable, I asked about those possibilities more directly. An estranged daughter recognized that, in addition to her father’s “fault” for their difficulties, her unkindness had contributed to their rift. A patient spoke about his friend’s perspective on a recent conflict between them.

Breaches often could be approached and sometimes mended. I learned first to recognize and then to encourage steps that repaired hurt between people. A husband could suddenly stop his countercomplaints against his partner and offer a sincere apology. A woman considered ways to make up for having missed her angry sister’s birthday celebration. A couple tried to rebuild trust after unfaithfulness.

In contrast to the dark and lonely outcomes from avoiding an apology or the messy blowback from an inadequate one, I witnessed a deep spiritual lifting of burdens and an opening of hearts when people faced a previous hurt with courage and humility. Their relationships didn’t just recover; they grew stronger.


An apology may be a small-scale event between people, but it’s enormously powerful. We’ve all done something wrong or made a mistake or insulted someone—even if by accident. We’ve all been hurt and wanted the other person to help us heal. Maybe you’ve experienced a family disagreement that didn’t get resolved and resulted in painful distance between siblings or with your parents or children. Maybe you’ve suffered the tension of unaddressed resentment with your partner. Maybe a dear friend is no longer so close because of an injury that seemed too uncomfortable to talk about. Or perhaps you’re one of the millions of Americans staring across a cultural or political gulf at your loved ones on the other side, feeling uncertain and hurt. Aside from actual abuse situations, these circumstances can be faced and fixed.

It is counterintuitive, perhaps, but the breaches themselves aren’t the real issue; our inability to fix them is what causes us trouble. It’s the failure to learn from one another and our missteps that keeps us from developing the resilient relationships we long for and need. We don’t really require a study or government official to show us that failure to mend breaks in relationships with partners, children, siblings, parents, colleagues, and friends hurts us in all kinds of ways. What we haven’t understood is how to fix the problem. Until now.

So, what words and deeds actually repair broken trust and heal us, our relationships, and our societies? What, essentially, is a good apology? I’ve written this book to answer that question.

Based on decades of clinical work, and incorporating religious tradition, legal thought, social justice concepts, and psychological science, I developed a four-step model of apology that’s accessible and straightforward. The technique is informed by research that has studied people as varied as high-performing CEOs and incarcerated criminals, the science of how often humans make mistakes, and observations of how our brains operate under stress. Perhaps equally important, it’s based on commonsense actions that you don’t have to be an expert to take. I don’t mean to say that apologizing is a piece of cake. But there is a way to make amends that leaves everyone feeling better.

Spelled out in simple steps, my model will show you how to understand the other person’s hurt, to express your regret, to make the harm right, and to prevent it from happening again.


In A Good Apology: Four Steps to Make Things Right, you will see real people’s brave efforts to make repairs to damaged relationships, across many spheres of life and many types of connections. You may be most interested in

  • how to heal a relationship with another person,
  • how to resolve family conflicts,
  • how to mediate conflicts so business teams work better,
  • how to heal breaches due to divisive political disagreements,
  • how to best contribute to social justice work, or
  • how to teach children to make better, more real apologies.

No matter where your interests lie, A Good Apology will help you understand why it’s so important to apologize, as well as why it’s so hard. Stories of personal attempts to mend relationships, along with compelling research findings, will illustrate the positive power of the four-step apology model. Within relationships, these steps can rectify wrongs, reduce resentment, salvage connections, and foster greater intimacy. For yourself, they can ease shame, enhance self-esteem, and make you a healthier and happier person. Ultimately, you can cultivate an attitude of more compassionate accountability, that is, holding yourself and others responsible for missteps while maintaining a kind and humane approach to the important people in your life.



Chapter 1

Why Apologize?

A good apology can be an intimate effort or an international exchange. Its importance lies both in its immediate effects and in its long-lasting impact on a relationship of any kind—friendship, marriage, family, nations, or institutional, religious, or ethnic groups. Not only does an effective apology restore balance to a relationship, it changes patterns and creates new possibilities. Every successful resolution builds on the benefits of previous ones, but, by the same token, after every missed chance to repair harm, the costs add up. Not having a workable way to say “I’m sorry” to the relevant person(s) can lead to long cycles of mistrust and conflict. For an individual, righting a wrong creates better psychological and spiritual health, whereas the buildup of guilt that isn’t expiated becomes a burden for the spirit. Within relationships, a failure to make amends can set in motion negative patterns of resentment and distance.


When Lisa and Philip sat in my office at our first meeting, the space between the two red armchairs they occupied seemed to expand into leagues of distance. They didn’t look at each other and didn’t address each other. Their presenting problem was near-constant bickering, which they readily reproduced for me, even while referring to the other in the third person. Their habitual arguing rarely led to conclusions. Irritable, unsatisfying exchanges had become their primary form of conversation.

Lisa and Philip were both in their midthirties, each with a wide circle of friends, steady connections, large families, and generally satisfactory jobs. Originally, they had planned to have children but hadn’t been able to reach a decision about actually starting a family. Recently, when the word “divorce” came up in an argument, it had scared them both into seeking therapy. They were genuinely mystified about how they’d landed in this frustrating, distant marriage.

I asked about the beginning of their relationship, before they’d gotten married four years earlier. They both brightened. Philip described their shared pleasure in bowling and line dancing.

As he spoke, Lisa smiled and, almost interrupting him, spoke to him for the first time in my presence: “Yeah, remember when we discovered we liked to do the same dorky things?”

He nodded and they told me, in unison, “It was great!”

For a moment, we all sat silent. Their striking shift, from very distant to quite united, was unmistakable.

I asked them when things had changed. Neither knew, but tension crept back into both their voices as they described the beginning of their married years.

Lisa: “We couldn’t agree about anything, even where to hang pictures.”

Philip quickly followed with, “Yeah, she always criticized how I did it.”

“He never asked for my opinion before he went ahead and drove in a nail.”

He scowled and spoke to her: “You never volunteered to help, did you?”

“I can use a hammer, too. But you never included me.”

“Did you really care about the pictures?”

“No, Phil, I really didn’t care.” Her voice dropped. “I really don’t care.”

A heavy, unhappy silence. Then, to me, Lisa said with a sigh, “I finally gave up and let him do it however he wanted.”

“But she never stopped complaining about it.”

I intervened. “This sounds like an argument you’ve had before, maybe not just about the placement of artwork.”

Philip: “All the time.”

Lisa: “If we’re talking at all.”

Philip: “Yeah, we just stop talking after a while. The arguments don’t really end.”

Lisa, more slowly: “I’ve just never understood why we can’t have things between us the way they were before we got married.” The couple had been together for several years before their marriage and had happily spent most of their free time together.

Each aspect of their married life seemed to reflect the same maddening motif: Each time they encountered conflict, they eventually gave up without resolution. Frustration and resentment grew.

The more I inquired about the change in their relationship, the more Lisa fidgeted and twisted Kleenex in her hands. When Philip mentioned their wedding itself, she held her right hand in front of her eyes. Tears ran slowly down her cheeks. Philip turned to me and shrugged, puzzled. Her unhappiness was palpable, but neither of them could tell me what she was crying about.

They agreed to return. I framed our task as trying to understand the puzzle of what changed for them and whether it had something to do with their wedding.


In our next sessions, Lisa could only cry and cover her face at first, embarrassed by such strong feelings. Over time she began, haltingly, to relate pieces of their wedding weekend. Finally, she articulated her painful disappointment with how Philip acted, especially on the night of his bachelor party. He’d returned to the hotel disheveled and smelling of perfume. As she related, she had tried to talk with him about it late that night as well as the following morning, but he’d been inebriated and hungover, respectively. Both times he’d been irritated by her questions. At the wedding reception, there had been much laughing and smirking among the groomsmen, and Lisa had grown increasingly unhappy. On their honeymoon, she’d brought up the subject again, but he had waved off her concerns, telling her not to be ridiculous.

In my office, Philip listened silently to her story, but when she stopped, he finally burst out with, “You’ve been holding a grudge all this time? Why didn’t you say something?”

Lisa was visibly taken aback by his question and answered slowly that she just now realized she’d avoided even thinking about their wedding for years. She pointed out that she’d never ordered wedding photographs and had given away her dress.

Philip shook his head slowly. “Wow.”

“Yeah, ever since, at our friends’ weddings, I think I always drink too much.”

“You think?”

“Yes.” She ignored his sarcasm. “And I usually stay as far away from Philip as possible.”

Another silence as that sad realization sank in.

“So, you argue with me about everything but don’t talk to me about this.” Philip’s accusation had a bitter edge, the feeling that comes from finding out you might be blamed for something you’d been unaware of.

I stepped in. “You may be right, Philip. Maybe that’s why you fight about everything else.” Their habit of squabbling seemed to develop as a sort of placeholder for communication they hadn’t been able to have. It was the indication that things were not good between them, but, like many such relationship warnings, it presented itself in an unknown language.

I continued, “What about this old hurt, though? You two never healed it, never even had a conversation about it. It began like a small infection and stayed, untreated, in your system.”

“So, what now? What can we do now?” Still perturbed, Philip turned toward his wife and said, “So I’m supposed to tell you I’m sorry after all this time?”

She shrugged slowly, at a loss.


Earlier in my career, I might have agreed that the opportunity for apology had long ago passed and that our task was to help Lisa move on. But by the time I met Philip and Lisa, I knew that it’s never too late to apologize. Bad relationship habits may have damaged the bond between people, but if you have a sincere wish to repair harm in your relationship, it’s always worth trying to have the conversation. In this case, even though Philip was upset that he’d been in the dark, both partners were eager to find a way to fix their problematic patterns.

“Yes,” I responded to Philip’s question, “an apology is exactly what we need to do.” They had never healed the old hurt. “Let’s figure out how to do it together.”


I see their problem as resembling a physical wound. Medical advice for treating cuts or surgical sites has changed since I was a child—even since my children were young. Rather than letting the skin dry out (“let it breathe,” we used to say) and form a scab, the recommendation is to keep the wound moist, so it can heal from the inside. Now it’s believed that if the outside closes up prematurely, it can seal in an infection and the injury ultimately will heal less well. Now we are advised to promote what’s called “wet wound healing.” That’s one way of understanding what happens when a needed apology is missed. The bleeding may have stopped, but the wound hasn’t really healed. To keep the subject open until it’s dealt with leads to more genuine healing.


I should point out here that Philip wasn’t avoiding an apology all these years. Neither of them was fully aware that one was needed. As a couple, they didn’t have a template for how to repair an old misstep. If he’d been able to understand how distressed Lisa was years ago, Philip might not have shut down her attempts to ask him about her concerns when they first came up. If he hadn’t defensively rejected her questioning on their honeymoon, he could have told her then that he was sorry he didn’t listen to her upset feelings on their wedding day and that nothing worrisome had happened the night before. She probably would have let it go. But, instead, the pain remained, although it stayed hidden, under the skin—like an abscess. By the time they arrived in my office, it had affected nearly everything in their relationship.

Apologies Help Relationships


  • "Those looking for a way to say sorry and mean it will learn much from Howes's approachable demystification of the art of apology."—Publishers Weekly
  • "A Good Apology beautifully outlines how our relationships can dramatically improve by an authentic way to repair. Mistakes and ruptures happen, and Howes shows us how the practice of the apology is the first imperative step toward repair. By following her 4 steps to make things right, the practice of how and when we apologize can be honed to create transformative and positive change."—Eve Rodsky, New YorkTimes bestselling author of Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have TooMuch to Do (and More Life to Live)
  • "At a time when conflict and divisiveness seem to be engulfing us all, this wonderful, on-target book by Molly Howes is just what is needed! Here are practical, effective remedies that can help make reconciled relationships possible."—The Most Reverend MichaelB. Curry, Presiding Bishop ofThe Episcopal Church
  • "This is the definitive book on how to make an apology that actually matters, that heals both parties, and that leads to growth, joy, and peace of mind. Accessible, authoritative, and filled with convincing real-life scenarios from this consummate clinician's own work, A Good Apology teems with warmth, wisdom, tenderness, and an infectious zest for making things right."—Edward Hallowell, MD, nationally bestselling co-author of Driven to Distraction
  • "Dr. Howes' beautiful book is a needed antidote to an era in which division has come to seem inevitable and conflict unresolvable. A Good Apology counters with a premise combining humility about the capacity of even the best among to cause harm and the possibility of human growth even in our darkest moments. It helps us forgive ourselves, too."— Frances Moore Lappé, New York Times bestselling author of Diet for a Small Planet and Daring Democracy
  • "I hope the whole world reads this book! Dr. Howes explores the power of a genuine apology in intimate relationships, politics, medicine and more, and she provides an elegant road-map for negotiating this tricky terrain. The ability to apologize is an often overlooked, but centrally important, aspect of happy relationships. Seamlessly written and saturated with wisdom, this book shows what it takes to free the heart - ours and others."
    Christopher Germer, PhD, author of TheMindful Path to Self-Compassion
  • "In A Good Apology, Dr. Molly Howes expertly delves into a difficult topic that helps us all become more loving and connected. In today's hectic world, nurturing our relationships is paramount. Through stories of people struggling and other useful tips and tools, Dr. Howes creates a road map we can all use to thrive."—Dr.Zelana Montminy, behavioral scientist & author of 21 Days toResilience
  • "Healthy relationships are essential to how we live and work together. Imagine the benefit to business, families, governments, health care, faith communities, education, and our quality of life if human beings could learn to make a good apology. In this earnest and inviting book, Dr. Howes connects social science, popular events and her considerable clinical expertise to create an accessible formula for the repair of broken relationships. In our divided age, this should be required reading."—NicholasCovino, PsyD, President of William James College
  • "'A Good Apology' is a brilliant, beautifully written, impeccably researched book that should be read by anyone involved in conflict management, organizational consulting, coaching, or psychotherapy. Actually, I can think of no one who would not benefit - both personally and professionally - from this book's clear, analytical, and heartfelt exploration of the four essential steps in a successful apology. Molly Howes has given us a life-changing gift with her sage advice and evocative stories of hurt, apology, and reconciliation."—p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; text-align: center; font: 11.0px 'Times New Roman'}span.s1 {font-kerning: none}David A. Hoffman, Esq., Mediator, Arbitrator, Collaborative Lawyer

On Sale
Jul 21, 2020
Page Count
288 pages

Molly Howes, PhD

About the Author

Molly Howes, PhD, is a Harvard-trained clinical psychologist and an award-winning writer. Following a Clinical Fellowship at Harvard Medical School, she completed her PhD in Clinical Psychology from Florida State University and a Postdoctoral Fellowship at Harvard Community Health Plan. Dr. Howes has contributed to research projects studying the interpersonal effects of depression, the impact of a parent’s cancer on the child’s psychological well-being, and the incidence and prevalence of mental health disorders in primary care practices and in larger international populations.

She is an author of several academic papers and presents at conferences for professional organizations such as the American Psychological Association. A MacDowell fellow, she has also been published in the New York Times‘s Modern Love column, Best American Essays, NPR’s Morning Edition, and elsewhere.

For thirty-five years, she has maintained an independent psychotherapy practice in which she treats couples, as well as individual patients of all ages.

Learn more about this author