Ask Professor Foxy: Do I Need to Say It’s OK When It Isn’t?

This weekly Saturday column “Ask Professor Foxy” will regularly contain sexually explicit material. This material is likely not safe for work viewing. The title of the column will include the major topic of the post, so please read the topic when deciding whether or not to read the entire column.
Dear Professor Foxy,
In the spirit of full disclosure, I must be upfront and say that this is not a sex question. It is, however, a relationship one, and I really wanted a pro-woman opinion and didn’t know where else to turn:
Sometimes my boyfriend behaves badly (e.g. doesn’t consider me in a way I want/need), and sometimes this hurts my feelings. I believe that communication is important in a relationship, so I will usually tell him “I need you to know that when you did XYZ it hurt my feelings because 123.” I usually do this level-headed and am able to make a good case. When he sees how his actions have impacted me, he will apologize. Which I appreciate. But, how do I respond to that? Usually when people apologize, we say “Oh, that’s ok, don’t worry about it,” or some variation of that. But I don’t want to say that. His behavior was *not* ok, so why would I tell him it was? I don’t want to be discount his apology either, or be punitive by saying “well, next time think of not only yourself.” I mean, I would LOVE for the offending behavior to not have taken place at all, but reality is that it did. And I want him to still feel comfortable to apologize without being overly condemned when he behaves selfishly in the future. Any advice?
Thanks for any input!
It’s really not ok.

Dear IRNO –
Thanks for writing in. Sex and relationships are flip sides of the same coin. How you feel about your boyfriend likely impacts how you feel about sex with him. To draw a distinction is to draw a false line.
It sounds like you two are good at communicating and that you have a pattern that feels comfortable for both of you. I agree, you should not say “it is ok” when it is not. As women, we are taught that we must make situations better, smoother, and prettier and that we should not cause others discomfort even while sacrificing our own comfort and happiness. There is an ingrained mindset of “don’t worry about me, are you ok?”
There is no need to grant absolution, the situation has been addressed, he responded appropriately, it is done. Why not simply say “Thank you for apologizing,” give him a kiss, and leave it at that? By saying “it is ok” you are actually extending the situation by lieing/downplaying about what happened. You are right, it is NOT ok. There is no need to say it is.
Also, it is ok for him to feel uncomfortable and to think more about his behavior instead of just being forgiven by you. Those uncomfortable moments are how we grow. “If I feel like this now, I can see how she felt when I acted like this.” If your boyfriend needs more than in the way of resolving the situation that is for him to bring up.
While your letter does not go into it, I want to bring up one more possible issue. Does his behavior change? Part of the purpose of communicating with him about this behavior is to make lasting change in the way you function as a couple and how he considers your needs. If he consistently repeats the same problem, it may be time for a more indepth conversation.
Professor Foxy
If you have a question for Professor Foxy, send it to ProfessorFoxyATfeministingDOTcom.

Join the Conversation

  • Comrade Kevin

    I’m glad this was posted, because it reminds me again of how much women are conditioned to be people pleasers rather than assertive, particularly when it comes down to sticking up for themselves.
    For whatever reason or another, the women who I have ended up in relationships with have often been atypical regarding this matter and have never been shy about expressing their feelings if I’ve ever said something insensitive or inconsiderate.
    But even so, for me, I recognize that with a severe anxiety disorder, I’m already heavy on the feelings of guilt and shame, so I’m often inclined to apologize to rid myself of beating myself up more than I already do. And it’s not that I do so specifically to spare myself pain—I’d be inclined to set matters right anyway. Sometimes I over-apologize when I don’t need to.

  • ErikB

    I always took “it’s OK” to be shorthand for “it’s OK now that you have apologized”, meaning you are willing to move on.
    I’m worried that the phrase “thank you for apologizing” could be interpreted passive aggressively, as in “I’m glad you apologized, but I’m not willing to move on”. I think in either case the response should be long enough to fully convey how you feel about the issue and not be able to be ambiguously interpreted. Two words is definitely too short to do all that.

  • Bethany

    I agree with professor Foxy’s suggestion, I’ll add additional options I have used in similar situations. I have in the past expressed forgiveness when that was accurate. I have also acknowledged an apology with “I accept your apology.” It marks the apology as appropriate and the heard and the conversation as over.

  • Lydia

    I was waiting for that last paragraph about whether or not his behavior changes. That seems like a key issue to me and my antenna went up when I was reading this letter. I don’t think a person is always obligated to say “it’s okay” all the time either. Sometimes you’re just not ready and need time to cool down, but there is also more than one meaning to “it’s okay.” It doesn’t necessarily mean “you’re behavior was okay” (because obviously a bad action is not made good just because a person apologizes.) It can also mean “I forgive you.” And I do think forgiving somebody who realizes their error and is sincerely sorry about is a good thing to do. Except when they’re just doing the same damn thing over and over again and going through the same process of contrition to such an extent that the apology just seems hollow. Then I’d really feel less inclined to forgive and less inclined to say “it’s okay.” That’s why I get a distinct vibe that there’s some resentment building here if the letter-writer is so often noticing her own reluctance to say “it’s okay” and that that could be due to the boyfriend acting like a jerk a) a lot and b) in the same way every time. If someone is repeatedly coming away so unsatisfied from her talk-it-out sessions with her partner, that’s a red flag to me. And that COULD warrant a more “in depth conversation.”
    That’s just speculation though. I could be totally wrong.

  • Antigone

    What about saying “Thanks for understanding how I feel”, or something along those lines. That lets him know that you appreciate his effort, but that it is still important to continue to change.
    Hope that helps!

  • joji

    Hmm. I don’t know. While I understand the reluctance about saying “it’s okay”, I think forgiveness–expressing it, and receiving it–are really important in a relationship. One big problem I had with my ex in our ten years together was that I never, ever felt forgiven for anything (I’m a woman too, should point that out so this doesn’t sound like a male-solidarity response). Apologies would get a sharp “well, I’m sorry you said/did that too” and I would continue to get the cold shoulder for a while. It didn’t help that she never apologized for anything, and maybe that’s an indication that the words “I’m sorry” had little meaning to her. One can certainly argue that apologies are of no value unless you follow up on them, but it’s essential that both partners feel–and act–the same way when it comes to saying sorry, or at least understand and respect each other’s take on it. Otherwise, one person may end up feeling eternally on trial with no hope of redemption, and in the long run that makes the guilty party start to claim the victim’s seat.
    So while Professor Foxy’s advice is good, I’d add that the kiss is key. Or, if you’re still hurting so much that you can’t give one sincerely, then something like “It’s really important to me that you apologized, even though it’s hard to say ‘that’s okay’ when I’m still feeling bad. But I love you, and things will be all right. Just please don’t do that again, babe.” I mean, since you have good communication, why not use it to the max?
    Of course, if hurting your feelings is something he does on a very regular basis, then you have a problem that can’t be solved with apologies and forgiveness.

  • paperispatient

    You could say something like, “It’s not okay yet, but it will be.” Meaning, I appreciate your apology, I haven’t gotten over the matter yet, but in time I will and we as a couple will be okay.
    I feel like I’ve also said something like, “Thank you, that helps,” in response to an apology – you acknowledge that the apology means something and is a step forward for you while not going so far as to say that “it’s okay” and no wrong has been done or the wrong that has been done is behind you and forgotten, if it’s not.


    I am very happily married, coming on twelve years now, and together for a couple more. If there is one piece of advice I can give anyone is to always accept apologies if they are indeed sincere. Do not continue to bring it up, even if the situation is bad. (If it’s /that/ bad, then maybe that’s a signal to end the relationship.)
    The easiest way to know if an apology is sincere is to see the results afterward. And, if there’s still no progress on that issue, maybe there’s a reason other than what you’re thinking.
    If he forgot your birthday -again-, maybe it’s not so much he’s a selfish prick but is genuinely bad with dates. My husband doesn’t even know how old his mom is exactly, and he loves her unconditionally, so I know forgetting my birthday is something I have to be proactive on. I circle every important date on the kitchen calendar and mark why it’s important (like my birthday) and also point out anything circled the night before.
    Almost all of my friends are guys (and I have a lot!), plus I have three brothers and a young adult son, and I work in a male-dominated industry. (Yes, I know – A LOT of testosterone!) With every one of them, without fail, be they straight, gay, black, white or gray alien, they all seem to have one thing in common: they all like the facts presented in outlined bullet points, like working off a check-off list. State your issues clearly, and expect an apology and follow up with how you expect the issue to be rectified. If the issue persists, then you can try to figure out why it’s just not being fixed. If still no luck, then that’s just a point that will probably never be fixed.
    Hope that helps!!

  • kaija

    A very good question (sounds relevant for many of us) and some good points in the comments. I agree 100% with the need to stop and examine the social conditioning that makes women feel as if they have to “make everything ok” for others AND that the “it’s ok” is a nebulous because it can be easily interpreted as “we’re ok now that we’ve had this conversation” or “the behavior is ok.”
    I have had similar talks with my male partner and male friends/family members and I usually try to say something like “Thank you for being willing and open to talking about this with me. I know it’s not easy, but just trusting that we can discuss these things when they come up is one thing I really value about our relationship”, which tells them how much it means to me not to have to swallow my feelings/stew in silence because I’m afraid that being heard means being rejected or brushed off and also, I think that it underlines that the communication is as important as the “final result”.