The #1 Fact to Know Before Confronting a Family Member

Should you confront a family member who hurt you?

Posted Mar 11, 2018

This is an important message to those of us who have been harmed by a family member who has never apologized, felt remorse, owned up, or oriented to the reality of the harm they've done.  Perhaps the injury occurred recently--or decades ago.

The most urgent issues—those where we feel most desperate to be heard and understood—pertain to violations of trust by people we have most relied on. Often in my work as a therapist, the harmed party wants to confront the wrong-doer, often a parent or other family member, in the hope of receiving a heartfelt apology. 

A  heartfelt apology is one  that would include a clear acknowledgment of harm that was disregarded at the time, and validation for the fact that certain events or communications occurred and were emotionally damaging to the hurt party.

Instead of the longed-for outcome, the harmed party may end up feeling re-traumatized. Most people who commit serious harm never get to the point where they can admit to their harmful actions, much less apologize and aim to repair them. Their shame leads to denial and self-deception that overrides their ability to orient toward reality. No person can be more honest with us than they can be with their own self.  

Before you open up a conversation with a person who has harmed you, keep in mind that protecting yourself comes first. Reduce your expectations to zero for getting the response you want and deserve. Speak your truths because you need to speak for your own self—because this is the ground you want to stand on, irrespective of whatever response you receive.

A heartfelt apology is unlikely to be forthcoming, now or ever.No individual will feel accountable and genuinely remorseful—no matter how well you communicate—if doing so threatens to define him or her in an unacceptable or intolerable way. 

As I explain in Why Won't You Apologize, the other person’s willingness to own up to harmful deeds has nothing to do with how much she or he does or doesn’t love you. Rather the capacity to take responsibility, feel empathy and remorse, and offer a meaningful apology is related to how much self-love and self-respect that person has available. We don’t have the power to bestow these traits on anyone but ourselves.