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Beware of Apologies That Won't Heal

These apologies hurt rather than heal.

Not every apology leaves both parties feeling better.

An apology can be offered without sincerity, simply to get out of a predicament. Or the wording of the apology simply lets the person off the hook. You might not be satisfied to hear your partner say, “I’m sorry you were so upset by my comment at the party,” as if the problem is that you’re oversensitive. You may want to hear, “I’m sorry I criticized you for telling jokes at the party. I was out of line to act like it was my job to monitor your behavior.”

Then there are apologies followed by rationalizations. We’ve all heard these (or offered them), and they are rarely satisfying. My friend Jennifer Berman drew a cartoon of the “guy with a million excuses.” My personal favorite was “I’m sorry . . . but you never ASKED me if I was married with kids.”

When we confront someone about something they did or didn’t do, it can be so satisfying if they can just say, “I’m really sorry,” and leave it at that. More frequently, however, the person's apology ("I’m sorry it’s been so long since I called”) is followed by an add-on implying they're not really responsible for their actions (“...but my work has been so overwhelming I didn’t have a free second”).

Some folks apologize with a grand flourish but then go on to continue the very behavior they are apologizing for—whether it’s drinking or coming home late from work after they’ve agreed not to. An endless, meaningless string of apologies signals a failure to change one’s own behavior.

What matters is not whether the wrongdoer sounded authentic or “really meant it” in those passionate expressions of remorse. All that counts is whether that person follows through so that there is no repeat performance,

Some apologies serve mainly to silence the other person. A man who started therapy told his wife six months after she discovered his affair, “I said I’m sorry, so why are you bringing it up again?” No apology can substitute for a willingness to hang in there, and engage with the other person over time. Nor can saying “I’m sorry” substitute for the hard work of healing a betrayal and doing whatever is necessary to rebuild trust.

Perhaps you can think of apologies or expressions of remorse you would have preferred not to receive. Perhaps a person who has harmed you in the past decides she needs to apologize to facilitate her own recovery, without considering whether dredging up very old material might be more painful than helpful for you.

Not all apologies clear the air or foster the growth of the relationship. Learn to spot the bad ones.

More from Harriet Lerner Ph.D.
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