My client, Angela, was in tears. She had just had an argument (again) with her ex, Terry. He had yelled at her, “the Judge will see you for what you are – a useless mother”. He blamed her for him missing their son’s parent-teacher interview because she’d sent him the link to the booking information but hadn’t set out for him the actual details of the time and day and hadn't reminded him of the interview. She had tried to stand her ground and ended up telling him to grow up and be responsible. When that made matters worse, she relented and started apologising “Ok, I’m sorry, Ok?” which also didn’t seem to help.
In any separation there will be a time when you may feel an apology is in order. As a mediator and collaborative lawyer, I have witnessed first-hand how a well given apology can stop a dispute from getting worse and even create a bridge to resolution. We will all have experienced the impact of a well intentioned and well crafted apology and the damaging impact of a poor apology.
An apology can often lead to greater understanding, can heal past humiliations and grievances and enable the recipient to feel their hurt or pain has been acknowledged and is regretted by the apology giver.
With the right factors at play, giving an apology to your ex may be a valid, constructive and positive way to move things between you forward towards conciliation and understanding. However, there are times when you should NOT apologise.
When Your Apology is not rooted in sincerity - To be effective as an apology, you have to be sincere and genuine about it. An ineffective apology is likely to be the result if you apologise because you:
- are feeling pressured, harangued, or bullied into doing so
- think it will shut the dispute down, allowing you to avoid it
- think it is what the other person wants to hear, even if you don’t think you have anything to apologise for
Angela’s ‘apology’ was likely was motivated by all three of these reasons!
I remember very well a mediation where the husband had responded ungraciously to a kind gesture by his former wife. His lawyer, recognising the inappropriateness and hurtful nature of his client’s comments in response to the gesture, prompted the husband to apologise. The result? An insincere and sarcastic apology that added salt to the wound his original comments had created.
If it is missing the element of sincerity, your apology is likely to backfire and conflict could end up escalating. If you find yourself in one of the above situations, you are better not to apologise.
When you apologise all the time – Has apologising become your default? Do you find yourself apologising for things that aren’t even remotely your fault?
Saying “I’m sorry” may be a long term habit that trips you up in other areas besides your separation. If apologising is your default, I am picking you likely do it elsewhere too, such as at work. It may be so entrenched in you as a response pattern that you don’t realise quite how often you do it.
If this sounds like you, the cause of your over-apologising may be that you lack confidence, are concerned to be liked or are avoiding or yielding when faced with potential conflict.
Apologising, regardless of whether you actually did anything to apologise for, can be a way of trying to keep the peace, of making a problem or conflict disappear so that you don’t need to deal with it.
The problem of saying you are sorry a lot is that it can…
… make you appear lacking in confidence
… dilute the important things you want to say, detracting from a clear message being given by you
… entrench a power imbalance that may exist in your relationship, further damaging it and your confidence
… diminish the power of your apologies. If you hear someone apologise all the time, their apologies usually become hollow and meaningless.
…mean you ignore your own feelings and needs in the bid for ‘harmony’
…build damaging resentment in your relationship with your ex if you feel you are always ‘giving in’. A pattern of giving in can be hard to break and can mean your ex thinks things are fine between you when they are not.
When you are dealing with a high conflict person – for high conflict personalities, it is a normal and necessary part of life to intensely blame others. It protects them from their own fault and responsibility.
Instead of constructively and proactively looking for solutions to problems or disputes, people with high conflict personalities default to blaming everyone. They are unable to examine their own role in, and contribution to, a conflict. They are all or nothing in their approach. It has to be ALL your fault otherwise it will be ALL their fault (which it absolutely cannot be!). Draw attention to their lack of insight and their own role in the situation you find yourselves in and you will be met with heightened, even exaggerated, emotional responses and defensiveness.
BIFF responses are a great way for dealing with a high conflict person but the architect of BIFF responses, Bill Eddy, also recommends avoiding apologising to a high conflict ex. Why? Remember how high conflict people take an “all or nothing” approach and cannot accept fault on their part? If you apologise, it is likely to be interpreted by your ex as you accepting it was ALL your fault. You certainly won’t get an apology in return for how he or she may have contributed to the issue. The apology feeds into your high conflict ex’s “all or nothing” approach and allows them to absolve themself from any responsibility for the situation. The worse thing is that your apology will likely be thrown back at you in the future when another dispute arises!
Speaking with Angela about her argument with Terry and her ‘apology’, she realised there were aspects of all three of the above situations at play for her in her interactions with Terry. She is now working on re-setting her apology response and being very conscious when she gives apologies. Perhaps there are situations where you also need to stop apologising?
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