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Relationship Effectiveness: What to Do When You’ve Messed Up

You’ve been there. We all have. You say or do something to damage an important relationship.

e831b6072cf7063ecd0b470de7444e90fe76e6dd1ab713469cf4c2_640_sorryMaybe you lose your temper and tell a loved one to get out of your life. Maybe people are counting on you to do something and you let them down: You forget to make a bank deposit, you back out of a planned vacation at the last minute, you lie about something important, you don’t show up when it was important to do so, or you share information that you promised to keep private.

Whatever mistake you made, the way you handle it makes a difference in the way you feel about yourself (your self-respect) and the likelihood of resolving the issue in a constructive way. Here are some ideas to consider.


1. Sincerely apologize. An off-hand “Sorry” may be easier than owning what you did and being more specific about what you regret, but remember your goal is to repair the relationship as much as possible. Letting the offended person know you “get” what is upsetting to him or her makes a difference. This means that you listen to and understand the other person’s upset.

Be ready for the other person to not accept the apology even if it is sincere. If the other person rejects the apology, you can know you did what you thought was right. Doing what you believe is right builds self-respect.

Apologizing is a relationship skill and does not mean you are weak. It will hurt if you are vulnerable in this way and the other person doesn’t respond well, but it is an important risk to take if you want to save a valued relationships.

2. Don’t lie to yourself about what happened. Don’t minimize what you did. Don’t tell yourself you don’t care about the other person being upset when you do. Deep inside you know when you are aren’t being honest with yourself.

sorry3. Find a way to repair. When you’ve damaged an important relationship, think of a way to repair it. Repairing the relationship shows you regret your actions and that you’re willing to put time and effort into showing the importance of the relationship. If you told someone she (or he) wasn’t important to you, then how can you show her that she really does matter?

4. Consider the specifics of what happened and what you can do to prevent it in the future. Repeating the same behavior makes it more difficult for others to forgive you. If you lose your temper when you are too hungry, then share your plan for how you will resolve that problem in the future and follow through.

5. Don’t blame. Blaming the other person for your behavior, pointing out the mistakes of others, or justifying your behavior is likely to make the situation worse.

6.  Accept that you can’t control the reaction of the other person. He may forgive you or he may not. Regardless of how well you handle the mistake the other person will make his own decision about whether to continue in the relationship.

Relationship Effectiveness: What to Do When You’ve Messed Up

Karyn Hall, PhD

Karyn Hall, Ph.D. is the owner/director of the Dialectical Behavior Therapy Center in Houston, a DBT-Linehan Board of Certification, Certified Clinician, a RO DBT Approved Supervisor and Trainer and owner of, an online educational program. She is a trainer/consultant as well as a therapist and certified coach, author of The Emotionally Sensitive Person, SAVVY, Mindfulness Exercises for DBT Therapists, and co-author of The Power of Validation. Her podcast, The Emotionally Sensitive Person, is available on iTunes.

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APA Reference
Hall, K. (2017). Relationship Effectiveness: What to Do When You’ve Messed Up. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2020, from


Last updated: 7 Jan 2017
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