I argue that an effective apology can help heal a relationship, but not by using the words, "I'm sorry. Please forgive me." When a person uses these phrases to ask for (or beg for) forgiveness, they effectively change the focus on the conversation (see also my blog on Fighting). The conversation begins by an injured party expressing how they are feeling (hurt, frustrated, angry, disappointed, let down, disillusioned, etc.). This will most likely cause the perpetrator to feel a sense of shame and discomfort. In response to this discomfort, he or she may likely utter words like, "I hurt you. I'm sorry. I'm such a lousy partner. I was only thinking of myself. I didn't want to hurt you. (notice how the subject has changed to this person's remorse and intentions!) How could you ever forgive me," usually accompanied by body language and facial expressions that communicate remorse or guilt. This humbling or groveling touches the injured person emotionally, who is then drawn into a care-giving role having to rescue the groveler. This is a very familiar dance, as seen in this typical exchange:
Linda: You really insulted me in front of my friends again. How could you say such things to me.
Barry: What? I did't mean anything by it. It was just a joke. (Defensiveness, talking about his intentions)
Linda: But I really got embarrassed and it hurt. I feel like you don't care about my friendships at all.
Barry: Okay, I'm sorry I said those things in front of your friends. I didn't mean to upset you. (Restating his intentions)
Linda: It's not the first time I've felt you've undermined my friendships. You know how important they are to me.
Barry: Okay, okay. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said those things. I guess I'm just a thoughtless jerk. (His apologies didn't work, so he's trying to make her feel sorry for him)
Linda: You're not a jerk. You're just careless with your words sometimes. I wish you could think before you speak. (Now she's talking about him!) But I'm really pissed off when you never seem to have my back. (She caught herself and tries to change the subject back to her feelings)
Barry: I said I'm sorry. What more do you want from me?! (Slumps and tips his head in shame, as if he's now injured himself) I guess I can't do anything right, and can't understand why you keep putting up with me. I'm really, really sorry I embarrassed you in front of your friends. (He's intensifying his apology efforts). You have to forgive me. I really love you. (Effort to emotionally connect with her so that she'll come over and comfort him)
Linda (Sensing that her feelings aren't going to be heard): Okay, I guess you're forgiven, but please try to think before you speak next time. (The "but" statement indicates that she's still wanting to talk about her feelings)
Barry (Finally feeling comforted): Okay, I promise.