Not surprisingly, I’d forgotten the letter completely; for one thing, it had been 10 years since I’d received it and, for another, when I read it the first time, I was still reeling and I knew nothing of either addiction or narcissism. With the benefit of hindsight, the first sentences are a dead giveaway:
“This is very difficult for me. I have started this letter many times, but haven’t been able to finish. I didn’t want to send it to you until I got it absolutely right. I didn’t want there to be any further misunderstanding.”
Mind you, this missive was supposed to be an apology for several years of lying and betrayal but it is entirely self-referential. It will not surprise you that the words “I’m sorry” do not appear but that the reassurance that the writer “isn’t that person anymore” does. Almost every sentence begins with “I” except for one: “Had you not been so angry with me, it would have been easier for me to admit my responsibility.”
Bingo! From self-absorption to blame-shifting in less than 100 words.
Keep in mind that I absolutely did not see this when I first read the letter a decade ago. Why? Because I wanted to believe that the relationship could be saved and, moreover, I didn’t recognize the patterns. I read what I wanted to hear.
That’s the problem with apologies; motivation matters, and not just for the person apologizing. A sincere apology is painful to voice and, often, painful to hear. When two people are committed to a relationship and to each other, and a serious transgression or breach of trust has happened, there’s no victory lap. As one woman, still in a 30-year marriage, put it:
“When there’s commitment, there are no winners, especially when there’s infidelity or a real betrayal. There’s just a long road of rebuilding connection, figuring out how to proceed, how to keep talking and not stay angry. The apology, no matter how heartfelt, is the foundation but not the house. The house has to be rebuilt from the ground up.”
But what to do when the apology falls short or you’re unsure of the other person’s motivation? Here’s where research can help.
What science knows about apologies—real and not
Researcher and psychologist Karina Schumann proposed that there were three reasons someone wouldn’t apologize at all, offer a perfunctory apology, or would simply respond defensively, despite the fact that apologies can be highly effective at promoting a reconciliation after a transgression or offense; as she points out, people hurt each other in relational contexts all the time and perhaps inevitably, in large ways and small, from infidelity to an insulting comment. Working from the research, Schumann proposed that there were three main barriers to apology: feeling low levels of concern for either the victim or the relationship; perceiving that apologizing will threaten or degrade your self-image; and perceiving that an apology won’t elicit forgiveness. Since she bases her proposal on the results of research—her own and that of others—each is worth looking at in detail.
- Low levels of concern: Research shows that those who are less empathetic are less likely to apologize, while those who have an avoidant style of attachment and are therefore not comfortable with closeness or intimacy are more likely to apologize in a defensive way, if at all.
- Threat to self-image: It won’t surprise you that those who have more fragile views of themselves—when they are high in narcissistic traits, low in self-esteem, or concerned with how they are viewed by others—are less likely to apologize. Finally, these people are more likely to experience a boost to their sense of power and self-worth when they refuse to apologize.
- Perceived ineffectiveness of an apology: I guess this is to be filed under “why bother” and perhaps is just the icing on the cake for those who have hesitations about apologizing anyway. Of the three proposals Schumann puts forth, this is the one with less research to support it. In my experience, this can also become part of a person’s defensive stance—“You won’t forgive me anyway so what’s the use of saying that I’m sorry?”—or part of blame-shifting.
Decoding the style and intent of a non-apology
If we keep the research in mind, it becomes clear that those proffering the weak apology or those who choose not to apologize at all are those high in narcissistic traits, not that into you or the relationship, or ultimately more concerned with self-image than anything else. That said, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they won’t try to get the benefit of your forgiveness without compromising themselves in the slightest. Remember the letter I got? Well, it worked for a while. Following are some observations about apologies that seem to be admissions or amends but really aren’t.
1. The gift as apology
It might be flowers, the fishing gear he’s lusted after, the extravagant trip you’ve always dreamed of taking, or a gesture—making you dinner, taking you out, cleaning up the garage—that is meant to melt your heart. This is the making-amends version of love-bombing, intended to amp up every ill-conceived idea you have about romance and true love and to induce instant amnesia so you don’t even register he or she never said a word.
2. The defensive apology
This one takes a bit of finesse and sleight-of-hand to pull off and it may actually work in the moment; it usually includes more than a little blame-shifting too. Yes, the words “I’m sorry” are included in this one; it’s the construction of the apology you have to pay attention to. The following are some examples: “I’m sorry. I was wrong and I know it but if you hadn’t pressured me the way you did, I would never have done it. You have no idea how bad you made me feel about myself, what with your anger and blame, and I found myself looking for positive attention elsewhere.” Uh-huh.
3. The dramatic scene
Forgiveness is the transgressor’s goal here and while the words “I’m sorry” may never get uttered, there’s plenty of drama and perhaps even a tear or two as the transgressor throws him or herself at your feet, either literally or metaphorically, and begs for your mercy and exoneration. The plan here is to build you up—as the person of compassion and understanding—so that you will open your heart and deliver. This can be effective especially if the person is normally full of him or herself, is categorical about always being right. and has never, ever taken responsibility for any of his or her actions. You’re likely to overlook the fact that no real apology or taking responsibility happened as you reach for box of tissues and marvel at his or her big heart and the incredible change you see. Again, 20/20 hindsight makes this moment cringe-worthy.
4. The blame shift
In theory, this one ought to be the easiest one to spot but the reality is that our best selves tend not to show up when we are in great emotional pain, feel threatened, or betrayed. If we are genuinely in love with the transgressor or aren’t ready to give up on the relationship even if our feelings are no longer rock-solid, we may be vulnerable to this tactic. This is especially true if there’s been a pattern of your partner shifting the blame onto you when there’s any kind of disagreement and this faux apologist knows how to push these buttons to his or her advantage. Ironically, the harder you are on yourself and the more self-conscious you get when you’ve fallen short, the more likely you are to be manipulated in this way.
Does love really mean never having to say you’re sorry?
This meaningless aphorism, penned by a Classics professor named Eric Segal and embedded in a bestselling book called Love Story and its movie version, found its home in the popular imagination in the 1970s and showed up for years on pillows, mugs, and posters which didn’t make it any more true. The ability to repair a breach in communication and trust by accepting responsibility and making amends is key to sustaining a healthy relationship, as research makes clear. But the transgressor has to do those two things, namely, take ownership of his or her acts and change future behavior; the words “I’m sorry” can’t stand alone.
Many of us—and I count myself in that number—have been guilty of not paying close enough attention when an apology is offered, and have paid the price. I would argue instead that listening carefully, plumbing the transgressor’s motivation, and paying attention to what he or she does next doesn’t make you a cynic or demonstrate your lack of faith in someone, but is simply healthy behavior.
Since I’m neither a psychologist nor a therapist, I’m taking my cue not just from life experience but a contrarian bit of research by Laura Luchies and her colleagues. Our culture preaches the value of forgiveness and there’s science to back that up, but what about that not-exactly-on-board-and-uncommitted-apology that you mistake for the real deal? Well, the published article is called The Doormat Effect and that gives you a sense of where we are heading here. Yes, the problem is that the person forgiving is utterly reliant on the transgressor living up to his or her part of the bargain which is changing and never doing it again. But—yes, life often hands us ‘buts’ when we want absolutes—what if your forgiveness has just greenlighted his or her continuing on the same path … yes, that is the doormat effect.
Smarter than a doormat
The cultural insistence on forgiveness as being the high moral ground— as Alexander Pope put it, “To err is human, to forgive divine”—doesn’t require you to ignore the dynamics of an apology. Recognizing your own investment in keeping things going will help you from being blindsided by denial too; just focus and take a deep breath and listen hard. It goes without saying that talking to a good therapist can help you unravel the threads when you’re stuck in a pattern of apology and forgiveness with someone who won’t ultimately step up to the plate.
Those two little words—I’m sorry—belie the underlying complexity.
Oh, and about that letter. I’m keeping it as a helpful reminder.
Schumann, Karina. “The Psychology of Offering an Apology: Understanding the Barriers to Apologizing and How to Overcome Them.” 2018, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(2), 74–78.
Luchies, Laura, Eli J, Finkel, James K. McNulty, James and Madoka Kumashiro. “The Doormat Effect: When Forgiving Erodes Self-Respect and Self-Concept Clarity”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2010), 98. 734-49.