Of all the keys to healthy relationships—whether with friends, family or significant others—perhaps the most important is knowing when and how to ask for forgiveness.

In my recent article “3 Dating Non-Negotiables,” I mentioned something called the forgiveness cycle. It’s one of the only things that can keep a relationship between two imperfect people from collapsing. It works like this:

“Person A does dumb thing. Person A either sees this themselves or is confronted about it by Person B. Person A explicitly, verbally acknowledges their guilt and unreservedly apologizes. Person B genuinely accepts the apology and verbally promises not to hold the offense against their partner anymore. Now you have fully restored your relationship to its pre-dumb-behavior state.”

But there’s a caveat: This won’t work if you’re not really apologizing, and there are a lot of ways we appear to be apologizing while actually maintaining that we were not the ones in the wrong.

(One disclaimer: If you think the other person in a conflict is being manipulative and that you haven’t done anything wrong, don’t use the language of apology at all. That dilutes it and makes it weaker for later, when you want to express genuine regret.)

Let’s assume, though, that deep down you know you did do something offensive. How can you tell whether you’re really apologizing or just faking it? Strangely enough, it’s often a grammatical thing. Consider these examples.

“I’m Sorry If I…”

By adding the word “if,” you’re disputing whether the offense really happened. “I’m sorry if I actually did such a thing.” The event is still hypothetical for you, so anything you have to say about it stays hypothetical too. Suffice it to say, this is a fake apology.

“I’m Sorry That You…”

This is the dirtiest kind of fake apology. Why? Well consider what you’re actually doing. Instead of owning up to your guilt for some previous offense, you’re insulting their personality. “I’m sorry that you can’t handle grown-up conversation” or “I’m sorry that you cry about every little thing” is not only not an apology, it’s a verbal slap in the face—the kind of thing that requires its own apology.

“I’m Sorry, But…”

This is the classic. Every 3-year-old has mastered it. You confess that you did something wrong, but before you enter the substantive part of the apology, you justify your behavior or even counter that the other person’s actions were worse, essentially saying, “I’m sorry I did this, but should we really even be talking about me at this point? Weren’t you the guiltier party?”

Why do we resort to these fake apologies so often? And how can we give better ones?

A Better Formula

Judy Dabler, a master conflict mediator I know, says we don’t just use fake apologies because we think we are right all the time. We also use them because no one ever modeled real apologizing for us or made us practice apologizing correctly. So even when we see our faults, she says, we sometimes need help getting out the right words.

I can’t remember the exact formula she suggests, but I have had great success with these six steps: 

  • Say, “I’m sorry that I _____.” Now we’re talking about something that definitely happened for which you are responsible.
  • Explain the logic with which you rationalized the offensive behavior at the time. Usually, we stop here because we are trying to justify ourselves.
  • Explain why you now think that earlier logic was wrong. You do this so they know you’ve come to see the error in your mindset.
  • Bookend the apology with another statement that, “I’m sorry that I hurt you.”
  • Ask, “Will you forgive me?”
  • Be quiet and wait to see what they say.

This is a dangerous moment in its own way because the other person can choose to intentionally withhold their forgiveness. If you’re being genuine, them withholding forgiveness can be as toxic as a fake apology would have been (try not to date people who withhold forgiveness). But if you do offer a genuine apology, and if they do genuinely accept it, then that completes the forgiveness cycle. And that’s a relationship’s only hope of surviving our behavior.

If you’re living in close relationships and you can’t remember making a full-on, verbal, “that I” kind of apology in the last month or so, you need to do some thinking. And if you can’t remember making such an apology in the last several months, you should probably take a day off of work to talk about that with a professional counselor.

That might sound presumptuous, but that may be because you believe something even more presumptuous: that in the last few months, you haven’t done anything offensive to anyone. So often, we tend to think that in all our conversations, decisions and attitudes, we treat everyone with respect, humility and appreciation—that’s simply not true, seeing as we’re all sinful human beings.

We hate apologizing because it hurts. It hurts because it requires us to come face to face with the kind of people we really are. But for the very same reason, apologies are one of the best ways to keep us mentally and relationally healthy. They force us out of our egomaniacal PR campaigns and give us a dose of reality.

So, now that you know why to, and how to, my only question is: Can you think of anyone who deserves an apology from you?