Here is a mystifying apology that I will never forget—never mind that it happened decades ago.
When my older son Matt was about 6-years old, he was playing with a classmate, Sean. At some point Matt grabbed the boy’s toy out of his hand and refused to give it back. The boy began knocking his head against the wooden floor and didn’t stop.
The boy’s mother was close by, and she reacted quickly and with considerable intensity. She did not tell her son to stop banging his head, nor did she tell Matt to return her son’s toy.
Instead, she turned to Matt with this stern reprimand: “Do you see what you are doing, Matt?” she said, pointing to her head-banging child. “Look at what you are doing! You are making Sean bang his head on the floor. You apologize to him right now!”
Matt looked confused, and understandably so. He was not being asked to apologize for grabbing Sean’s toy. He was being asked to apologize for Sean banging his head. Rather than Matt being held accountable for his own behavior, he was asked to take responsibility for the other boy’s reactions. Matt handed the toy back and walked away, no apology offered. Later I mentioned to Matt that he should have apologized for taking Sean’s toy, but that he wasn’t to blame for Sean banging his head.
If Matt took responsibility for Sean’s head banging, Matt’s apology would have been at his own expense. He would have been admitting to something he did not—and could not—do. It would equally have been at Sean’s expense, who then would be denied the agency and responsibility to manage his anger in a different way.
Sean's mother did not have bad intentions. Her mystifying apology reflected the confused thinking that typifies many relationships. The higher the anxiety in any system, the more individuals are held responsible for other people’s feelings and behavior (“Apologize to your dad for giving him a headache”) rather than for their own ("Apologize to your dad for not turning the music down when you knew he was fighting off a headache").
The question of "Who's responsible for what" is a very tricky question that is at the heart of many relationship problems and failed apologies.
Many of us have learned to take primary responsibility for other people's feelings, thoughts and behavior, and hand over to others responsibility for our own.
When this happens it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to get an apology right.