The most outstanding apology I have ever experienced began when some baggage handlers tore the handle off a piece of luggage on a flight to Okinawa, where my wife and I were living at the time. Upon our return, we wrote to the airline to ask them if they could repair the luggage, and we received an invitation to meet a representative at Naha Airport. I assume the airline’s head office told the rep not to reimburse us and to just apologize to the point that we would go away. And what an apology – he supplicated with abandon in a slowly-escalating horror during which the only question occurring to me became how to stop it. We escaped at the first opportunity. Mission accomplished China Airlines.
This reflects a surprising truth in therapy, and perhaps in life, which is that apologizing does not usually help resolve a rupture in a relationship. We are socialized to believe that the apology itself is the end-point of the conflict. It’s the thing you are supposed to want from the person who hurt you. “I’m sorry”, now everything is better. Consequently, when we hurt someone, we often jump straight to sorry as if it is the magic word that will make them feel okay. And it feels surprising when it doesn’t work. “I said I’m sorry, what more do you want?”
Saying sorry may work for minor everyday infractions, but it’s generally not an effective salve for relationship hurts. One way to understand the problem is that saying “I’m sorry” is not, at its essence, really about the person we hurt. It’s an expression of regret, and therefore more about the feelings of the one who caused the hurt. It assumes that what the injured person wants is the humiliation or shaming of the injurer. But we’re generally not that vengeful. When we are the one injured, what we want is more for the person who injured us to recognize their impact on us and to understand how we felt about it. How they feel about what they did is of secondary importance.
Saying sorry can also shift the work back onto the injured person. The pattern goes something like:
Injured: “You hurt me.”
Injurer: “You’re right, I’m really sorry. Can you forgive me?”
Injured: “Okay, okay, just don’t do it again.”
It becomes apparent that the person apologizing feels bad or ashamed about what they did and wants the person they injured to help them feel better. The actors switch roles and the apology prematurely ends the conversation, leaving the injured person holding onto difficult unexpressed feelings. It also deprives the injurer of the opportunity to demonstrate understanding and empathy for those feelings.
Of course we want reconciliation in a relationship after a rupture, but a better path to take as the injurer is to work to understand the impact on the person who was hurt, and to then demonstrate understanding of that impact. The amazing thing about this work is that apologizing at the end of it is not usually necessary. It’s not about you feeling bad, it’s about the other person feeling understood.
I remember a couple of years ago asking one of my clients to reschedule a regular appointment because I had another commitment. I then forgot about the new appointment, and received a call from him at the rescheduled time asking where I was. Fortunately I was just down the road, so I rushed back to the office and we sat down. I felt hugely embarrassed, especially because I had asked him to shift times for me, and then I was the one who did not turn up. In the past I would probably have apologized quite profusely and worked not to make the same mistake again. However, I took a deep breath and said, “I know I asked you to come at a different time because of my schedule this week, so I’m wondering what it was like for you when I didn’t show up and you had to call me?”
This kind of response starts an entirely new kind of conversation. It’s tremendously difficult to do because it involves making yourself very vulnerable. “Here’s what I did, and I want to hear what that was like for you.” It’s like opening the castle gates to the oncoming horde. The urge in me to apologize was very strong at this moment precisely because I knew it would end the conversation. It would protect me from hearing his disappointment in me. It had nothing to do with helping my client feel better.
But it’s precisely the opening of the gates, or the willingness to be vulnerable, that makes this work so well. The fear we have when doing this is that we will be attacked, the hurt will spread, and the relationship will suffer. However, if we open ourselves up to hear from the injured person what it was like for them, and try to stay receptive and acknowledging of their experience, usually this results in a kind of closeness you cannot reach through an apology. It makes sense when you think about it in terms of dropping defenses. If you approach the conversation by protecting yourself then it’s like putting up a wall that becomes hard for either of you to get through. Letting the wall down, however, invites the other person in. It’s scary and uncomfortable, but if they experience no defenses when they enter then there is nothing to fight.
It gets easier to do when you realize you have nothing you need to protect.