Jennifer Thomas is a bestselling author, psychologist, speaker, consultant & apology critic

How Gary Chapman Discovered What to Say… When Sorry Isn’t Enough

Jennifer Thomas and Gary Chapman in his office.

In the introduction to “When Sorry Isn’t Enough”, Gary Chapman describes the path to the development of our new book. Other authors have talked about the components of a good apology but none have zeroed in on the powerful scripts others have in mind when we try to apologize to them. Here is his “Aha” moment in Dr. Chapman’s own words:

I recall the day ten years ago when Dr. Jennifer Thomas sat in my office and shared her idea that people speak languages of apology. “I have read your book on the five love languages. My husband and I found it extremely helpful in our own relationship,” she said. She added that she uses the concept in her counseling of other couples.

“The idea that each of us has a primary love language and if that language is not spoken, we do not feel loved, has opened the eyes of a lot of my clients. I have watched them learn to speak each other’s love language and have observed how the emotional climate in the marriage improves. It is a very practical tool to help couples learn how to connect to each other emotionally and, as you say in the book, to keep each other’s love tanks full.” As an author whose love language is words of affirmation, I was enjoying Jennifer’s accolades, but I was not prepared for what she said next.

“I believe that people also have different ways of apologizing, and what one person considers a sincere apology is not what another person may consider a sincere apology. In essence, they have different languages of apology.

“I have seen this often in my counseling. One spouse says, ‘If he/she would only apologize,’ and the other says, ‘I have apologized.’ ‘No, you haven’t,’ the other one says. ‘You have never admitted that you are wrong.’ So they get into an argument about what it means to apologize. Obviously, they have different perceptions.”

I was immediately intrigued with the idea. I remembered numerous couples in my office exhibiting similar behavior. It was obvious they were not connecting with each other. The supposed apology was not having the desired effect of forgiveness and reconciliation. I also remembered occasions in my own marriage when Karolyn had apologized but I considered it rather weak, and other occasions when I had apologized, but she had a hard time forgiving me because she felt that I was insincere.

I said to Jennifer, “I think you are on to something. Your idea certainly resonates with my experience. What do you plan to do with this idea?”

“I’d like to write an article,” she said, “and I was wondering if you could help me get it published.”

“I’d be glad to,” I said. “Why don’t you write the article, send me a copy, and we’ll go from there?”

The next week, Jennifer’s idea kept coming back to me again and again. In fact, that very week I encountered a couple in my office who were disagreeing on whether the husband had genuinely apologized. The wife was having difficulty forgiving him because, in her mind, he had never apologized, while he was convinced that he had apologized. A week later, I called Jennifer’s office and said to her, “I’ve been thinking about your idea and I think it is bigger than an article. Would you be open to the possibility of the two of us doing research on apologies and perhaps writing a book to­gether on the subject?” She was elated and I was delighted, because I knew her idea had tremendous potential for helping couples to find forgiveness and reconciliation.

Our research has clearly revealed that when it comes to apologizing, people indeed speak different languages. That is why sincere apologies may not always be received as sincere, and why forgiveness and reconciliation are not always forthcoming. From our observations as marital therapists, we notice a deafening lack of persuasive apologies. We believe that the shortage of apologies with impact may be a central factor in the epidemic of crumbling marriages that we see today. There are several good resources regarding apologies that are currently available. To the best of our knowledge, however, this book is the first attempt to shape the content of an apology to the particular needs (or language) of the recipient.


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