Sooner or later you’re going to mess up. It might happen on the second date, or the tenth date. (If it happens on the first date, that’ll probably be it.) How can you minimise the effect and move forward in your dating?

You’ll probably have memories of messing up in previous relationships. Did you have endless arguments about whose fault it was? Did you have to keep apologising over and over? Did your partner bear a grudge for years after? Did you feel your partner didn’t really believe your apology? Or maybe you couldn’t bring yourself to utter the S word at all? Whatever your baggage, you need to be aware that new partners may have completely different needs when it comes to apologies. And you’ll need to find out what those needs are.

Before you go any further, take the quiz and find out your own preferred types of apology. The five “apology languages” were developed by Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas and you can read more about them in their book.[i]

Better still, get your date to take the quiz before you next meet and bring along the results to discuss. Doing this before you need to apologise would be a great way to minimise the effects of you messing up. (And don’t worry about your date messing up. Concentrate on your own mess and let your date worry about him/herself.)

Here’s a quick summary of the five types or languages of apology – you’ll recognise one or more as being what you like to hear – those are YOUR apology languages. But they may not be your date’s. We tend to apologise to others in the way that WE like – but you’ll need to understand your date’s needs if you want to move forward after your messing-up incident.

I’ve commented on what I personally think of the apology styles. So in case you ever date me in the future, take note. I appreciate that this makes my article slightly biased, but I’m enjoying writing it.

Apology Language 1: Expressing Regret

You say: “I feel terrible and really wish I hadn’t hurt you.” I personally really like to hear this one! It shows empathy and an understanding of what you’ve put me through. If you look really sincere and serious and cry a little bit while you say it, even better. (Not sure what I say in reply though. Definitely not “It’s OK” which is the typical English response. Probably “Thank you” and “OK”.)

Apology Language 2: Accepting Responsibility

You say: “I was wrong. I made a mistake.” Not many people say this straightaway. It’s easier to blame someone else or circumstances. It’s refreshing to hear and reminds me that you’re human.

Apology Language 3: Demonstrating Repentance

You say: “I’m going to make sure this never happens again. These are the strategies I’m going to use to ensure that.” I like this …. And I’m going to pin up your strategies on the wall and grade you on them each week – hahaha! I gently advised someone this week about how he might have phrased something very slightly differently to avoid offending me, which went down very well – so you can help with the strategies.

Apology Language 4: Asking for Forgiveness

You say: “Will you forgive me?” Personally I don’t like this one. It puts pressure on me to forgive you too early, and takes the focus off you. I’ll forgive you when I’m ready. Plus people are generally not that clear about what forgiving actually involves. A good definition is:

“willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and indifferent behaviour

toward one who unjustly injured us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity, and even love toward him or her”[ii]

But your date may not have the same definition. That’s something interesting to discuss on a date, BEFORE you get to actually needing to apologise. Some cultures don’t have a concept of personal forgiveness. It’s quite a Western idea that derives from Christian theology. So don’t assume your date will get what this involves or what its significance is. Forgiveness in some cultures is more of a legal transaction, a “pardon” whereby the victim lets the perpetrator off their punishment. In this case, no emotional processes may have taken place. You may have a more relational-based concept of forgiveness, and be expecting a romantic making-up experience. Your date may not. The word “sorry” doesn’t even exist in some languages. And cultures vary widely in how often they use the word. I advised someone this week that the English apologise a lot, even when it’s not their fault, so keen are they to avoid giving offence. Not saying that’s a good national characteristic, but it’s good to be aware of it.

Apology Language 5: Making Restitution

You say: “I’ll make it up to you.” This one makes me mad. Sebastian in La La Land says it to Mia when he doesn’t turn up for her one and only performance, and it’s pointless and insulting in my view. How can he possibly think there is anything he can do to make up for that?! Maybe you can do something nice as well as say some of the other apology lines above, but definitely not on its own.

La La Land (2016) Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone)

So, don’t avoid the S word but don’t use it carelessly. Ask your date if what you’re saying is helping and what else you can do to satisfy him/her. In other words, you’re going to need a meta-narrative in your conversation. More on that in another blog post.[iii]

[i] Chapman, G., & Thomas, J. (2013). When Sorry Isn’t Enough. Moody Press: Chicago.

[ii] p. 123, Enright, R. D. & the Human Development Study Group (1991).  The moral development of forgiveness.  In W. Kurtines & J. Gerwitz (Eds.), Handbook of moral behaviour and development (Vol. 1, pp. 123-152).  Hillsdale, NJ:  Erlbaum.

[iii] Further reading while you’re eagerly awaiting my next blog post: