Children grow up learning that “please” is the magic word, but as adults we sometimes need to be reminded that “sorry” is another. It’s often tough to say, but no sentiment is more powerful in keeping families together through life’s spats, misunderstandings and occasional major feuds. And what better time than the holidays? Reaching out may take guts and a healthy dose of pride swallowing, but having someone you care about back in your life will be worth it. Here, some help finding the right words to apologize:
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The rift: You said something unfortunate to your mother-in-law.
Mend it: Fortunately words have the power to heal as well as hurt. Try writing—lest you stick your foot in your mouth again—and keep your apology simple. Often, all you need to say is “I’m sorry,” but what matters is how you say that, says Isaac Herschkopf, M.D., author of Hello Darkness, My Old Friend. “I’m sorry that you were hurt” doesn’t do any good; it absolves you of blame and sounds halfhearted. On the other hand, by saying, “I’m sorry for what I said—it was awful,” or “I was wrong and I sincerely apologize,” you accept responsibility and show you regret your actions.
The rift: Lifestyle disagreements drove you apart from your cousin.
Mend it: You didn’t like her choice of husband—or maybe time, geography and busy lives simply got in the way. Whatever the cause, you’re no longer in each other’s life, and now you regret it. “The first step,” says Barbara LeBey, author of Family Estrangements, “is to say, ‘All I can think about is losing our relationship. Please, let’s forget it. It’s my fault.’?” It’s important to accept some of the blame. Once you’ve reopened the dialogue, don’t rehash the situation and risk stirring up resentment. LeBey suggests saying, “I’m just happy we’re talking again. Let’s move on.”
The rift: You gave your brother a loan and he never paid it back.
Mend it: Money is notorious for causing separations that can last years. “If you want to move beyond the rift, you need to think of the loan as a gift,” says LeBey. “Say, ‘I want this to be a gift. If you want to pay me back, I would appreciate that, but I value you more than I value the money.’”