Apologies are overrated.
"I'm sorry," should be the least repeated phrase in an intimate relationship. We have such good intentions when we apologize. We want to stop fighting. We feel frustrated. We feel bad.
For apologies to work, there are two conditions that we have to meet.
1. You feel healthy guilt about an intentional behavior or action.
Many times we feel the need to apologize when our partners or spouses are upset. Maybe they even demand an apology for something you did or said. If you can reflect on what you said or did and genuinely come to some resolution that what you said was out of line, then you've met the first condition.
Be careful with this first one. Many people rush to an apology without having met it. If you do, you'll commit the first of two apology errors: the error of inauthenticity.
You'll apologize, which might please your partner, but you'll really just be giving in. Over time, if you apologize this way, you'll build up a sense of resentment toward your partner. You'll have to hold yourself accountable for being willing to apologize for something you don't feel was intentional.
There's another option, however, and it begins with the second condition.
2. Your spouse or partner is convinced that you understand her or his pain.
Let's say you feel like you get it. You really were a jerk and you shouldn't have said what you said. Let's also say that you still feel a little frustrated and don't want to take the time to listen to your spouse talk about why she or he is frustrated with what you said, so you apologize.
By doing this, you unintentionally commit the second apology error: the error of patronizing.
If you get really lucky, this apology might satisfy your partner. More likely, however, your she or he will feel like you are just being patronizing, leaving you with something else to apologize for.
Try something different.
Meet the second condition before you start worrying about the first. Listen to your partner. Try to avoid defensiveness. You may have a reason to feel angry, but set that aside for the moment and listen to what she is saying.
Once you can ask her, "Do I get it?" and she can respond, "yes," then you can examine the first condition.
If you reflect on what you said or did and know that you shouldn't have said it or did it, then apologize. It will be genuine.
If, however, you've met the second criterion and still don't believe you've done anything intentionally wrong, then clarify your intention. Some of the most powerful words you can say are, "that wasn't my intention."
It will only work, however, if your partner knows you get it. Otherwise, it will probably just make things worse. Curiosity about experience and empathy about pain are the most important ingredients to a great apology.