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Good Apologies Seem Impossible

But you don't have to miss your chance to make things right.

Photo by Dexter Fernandes on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Dexter Fernandes on Unsplash

Rolland, a 43-year-old attorney, came to see me on the recommendation of his girlfriend, Cathy. During our meetings, he told me about his romantic relationship, his social life, and his work. With humor and insight, he told stories about his childhood, especially involving his only sibling, a just-younger brother. Both of Rolland’s parents had died in the previous five years, and his dark periods of grief were why Cathy thought he should talk to someone.

Sometimes, as he spoke about his parents, particularly his mother, his voice slowed and his eyes filled. But he usually moved quickly to another subject. As a litigator, Rolland was used to controlling the narrative. In response to an unexpected question from me, he often complimented my “good question,” but his considerable verbal skills enabled him to skirt direct answers. He did tell me that conflicts with Cathy could be heated – as could those with colleagues.

When I asked about trusted friends, Rolland answered that Cathy was the only person he was close to … anymore. The “anymore” rang hollow and sad, as if he was alluding to someone he had lost.

“Did you have someone else before?”

“No! Well, I don’t know.” He became uncharacteristically quiet.

After a moment, he began a courtroom anecdote I’d heard before, well-worn, with a funny punch line.

When he paused, mid-story, I gently interjected, “Was it your mother? The person you used to be close to?”

“What? No!”

His eyes narrowed and he rearranged himself in his chair. Silence, except for his breath, which came in audible, short bursts. I wondered if I’d angered him by asking, but he looked more bereft than angry.

When he finally spoke, his voice was tight with feeling.

“My [expletive] brother and I used to be close.”

Five years earlier, just after their father died, his brother and he had argued about their parents’ property. On one occasion, Rolland had physically pushed his brother in frustration. In the melee that followed, his brother had broken Rolland’s nose and then stormed out of the house, leaving him bloody and furious. They hadn’t spoken since.

His brother, who had been his childhood ally, had disappeared from his life. During a very challenging time of their lives, Rolland and his brother did not have each other around.

“He didn’t even speak to me at our mother’s funeral.” Rolland’s jaw tightened. “That ruined our relationship for good.”

Over the next few sessions, as we talked about their conflict, I carefully introduced the possibility that Rolland had perhaps inadvertently contributed to the standoff himself. For example, he hadn’t approached his brother at the funeral, either.

“No, he betrayed me!”

At one point, he went so far as to say, “He owes me an apology. I wish he would say he was sorry.” Despite the loss of this important relationship, Rolland couldn’t consider approaching his brother to try to repair their rift. I don’t mean to imply that his brother was blameless, only that Rolland had played a role, too. But he couldn’t imagine apologizing for his part.

Why is it so hard?

You could see his isolation as self-imposed, a result of innate stubbornness, but I see it as a product of our culture, too. In a Psychology Today article, a journalist wrote about her interviews of estranged siblings. Despite years of unhappy distance, they all said they would be willing to reconcile if their brother or sister approached them to say “I’m sorry.” But not one intended to initiate an apology.

So, why do we, like Rolland—like all these estranged siblings— stay stuck in unhappy situations rather than fix them? In my experience, mending these breaches seems incredibly hard to do, usually for both parties. Most of us rarely consider apologizing when a rift has occurred. You may sense you’ve played a part, but it’s especially hard to initiate an apology if you’ve been hurt yourself. Deep down, you might believe that there’s more than one side to the story, but you still stay stuck. Like Rolland, you may not feel free to consider the other person’s perspective.

Most of us have a Rolland in our lives—or are like Rolland ourselves. If you have trouble taking responsibility for mistakes or hurts or conflicts that have more than one side, you are not alone. Because of the way our brains work, we are biased to have limited awareness of our errors. Often, we literally can’t see things that conflict with our expectations; we’re regularly fooled by optical illusions; and we overestimate both the accuracy and the completeness of our perceptions.

Secondly, loads of societal rules and cultural norms operate directly against our being able to make amends. In the West, particularly in the United States, our dominant culture values a posture of rightness and certainty, which doesn’t lend itself to paying attention to how we might have hurt someone. For many, because our models of psychological strength lean toward competitiveness and independence, relationship repair barely makes a blip on our radar.

We’re fascinated by the attempts of politicians or entertainers to get out of trouble, but most of the public apologies we hear about are inadequate and sometimes downright awful. Although we can all probably relate to the wish to hide from disapproval, our eagle-eyed inner critics can identify that these attempts fail to make things right. Unfortunately, we’re not likely to witness many effective personal apologies, either; on the other hand, most people can readily call to mind stories about poor or missed apologies. Naturally, it follows that most of us don’t know what a really good, thorough apology looks like. Given all these limitations, it’s kind of amazing that anyone ever apologizes in a meaningful way.

Whether because it’s easier or simply familiar, many of us accept the sad conclusion that once something’s gone badly, that’s the end of the story. But you wouldn’t be reading this post if you were fully satisfied by that state of affairs. I wouldn’t have written A Good Apology or this blog post if I believed we were doomed to that fate.

We can learn to make good apologies.

Sources of hope can be found in diverse counterexamples: Religious traditions across the millennia and around the world inform us about the essential human urge to face and atone for wrongdoing. Increasingly prevalent restorative justice programs, some of which are based on Indigenous Circle practices, offer models for compassionate accountability in our criminal justice system. In US hospitals, apologies for medical errors appear to be leading to better outcomes for patients and doctors.

What we, as individuals, need are:

  1. A better understanding of why making amends is so important
  2. A bit of instruction about how to do it well
  3. Practice

It’s hard to change habits and learn new skills and, like Rolland and his brother, we may fail to take advantage of the chance to change the outcome with a loved one. However, it turns out that most people can change this habit. Most people can learn to make wrongs and mistakes right, and to repair hurt in relationships. Most people can learn to make good apologies.

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