In my nearly 4 years as a DA and now working in family law and criminal defense, I have gotten to know a lot of domestic violence victims, and I have listened to more recordings of fights than I can count. There’s a common thread in most DV fights that has always bothered me: false apologies.
These types of apologies are hard to spot, they are confusing, and they are emotionally turbulent. Identifying them can help you call them out when someone uses them with you (in a DV situation or otherwise) and can help you self-check to make sure you’re not using them on other people.
Here are some things to be on the lookout for:
1. Boomerang Apologies
These are apologies that are meant to turn the emotion back on the apologizing party. You might hear them phrased like “I’m sorry I ruined your life,” or “I’m sorry I can’t be perfect like you deserve.”
These apologies purport to focus on the harmed party, because they pay lip service to some complaint or issue the harmed party had, but in reality, these apologies are intended to create pity for the person apologizing.
These apologies are often spurred by feelings of insecurity. And they are often selfish. That is, it is just plain selfish to focus on one’s own insecurity and need for validation while masking that with lip service to another person’s needs or hurt. Rather than taking time to think through how the harmed party might feel or what negative effect they might be having on the harmed party, those who use boomerang apologies simply say the words “I’m sorry” and then throw themselves on the tracks to be dramatic and get attention. This is selfish insecurity.
In short, when insecurity blinds a person to the needs of others and makes them the needy one, it is selfish. Period. Boomerang apologies are selfish. And they are often inflammatory. Steer clear of these, and kindly call them out when you spot them.
2. Passive-Voice Apologies
When people use these apologies, they are usually seeking forgiveness without wanting to admit fault. When someone harms someone else, but refuses to do the mental work to think through how they harmed them, what that might feel like, what consequences that might have, etc. but they still want things to “go back to normal,” they often take this short cut and put their apology into passive voice. You might hear these apologies phrased like “I’m sorry this is how things turned out,” or “I’m sorry things were misunderstood.”
These are not apologies at all. That is, an apology is a communicative signal of remorse for one’s own actions. A passive-voice apology is just a statement of some set of facts or circumstances that is mutually regrettable. Passive-voice apologies include no real personal accountability. The apologizing party may as well say “It sucks that the sky is blue.” That’s how worthless these apologies are.
Now, sometimes people use these apologies without necessarily meaning to avoid fault. If you think that might be you, evaluate your motives. Are you trying to start a discussion about circumstances, the origin of which you don’t understand? Then try rephrasing it with curiosity “How did we get here? This is so hard for me, and I don’t understand what I did or what went wrong.”
On the other hand, if you are trying to get things to feel better again while refusing to look at what got you there, you’re probably trying to get out of fault. If you are, then you need to do some work toward a real apology.
3. Hot-Potato Apologies
These are apologies that pass the emotion on as quickly as possible to the other party. You might hear these phrased like “I’m sorry you feel that way,” or “I’m sorry you’re going through such a hard time with this,” or “I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to make you cry.”
Again, these apologies usually (but not always) come from someone who has failed to do the mental work to understand the harm they have caused. It’s uncomfortable to do that work. It’s uncomfortable to take the blame, because that might lead to rejection, so, instead, people using these apologies just note the most obvious emotional effect and apologize for that circumstance rather than for their part in causing that circumstance.
The person using a hot-potato apology may as well say “I am uncomfortable with you crying, so I will validate you for that, but that’s it; I just want the crying to stop; I don’t really want to think about or admit to what I did.” These apologies are simply not enough to mend and fortify relationships after one or both parties have harmed each other.
So how then do you sincerely apologize?
That’s a question that begs room for complexity. Not every situation is clean-cut when it comes to who harmed whom and in what ways.
That said, a good rule of thumb is to try the actor’s warm-up: identify the issue, read the script (try to recall the situation that caused harm, what was said, etc.) and then put yourself in the other person’s role.
How would you feel if you were the other person? What would go through your mind listening to what was being said? What is going on in that person’s life that might exacerbate or alleviate the issues? What consequences might have happened to that person because of what was said or done? Become that character — that person who felt wronged — for just a few moments or minutes.
Then switch roles and do the same for yourself. What are your motives? What is going on in your life that might be blinding logic? What were you feeling at the time and why?
This is how you give life to the golden rule.
If you do this with integrity, you’ll more than likely spot your own errors and/or more clearly and logically spot the other party’s errors as well. Then you can offer a real apology, if warranted, or you can evaluate the other person’s apology and surrounding circumstances. True apologies end up looking more like this:
“Wow, I can see now that when I said [xyz] and when I did [xyz] it made you feel like [xyz] and caused [xyz].” That is a real apology. That is what counts.
If we want apologies to do their job in mending harms and fortifying relationships, we need to stop using them as weapons or manipulation, and we need to start using them sincerely. This is the way forward.
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