Relationships are a source of soothing and stimulation and help us to feel less alone in the world. We are hard wired to be social as our chances of survival are greatly increased if we belong to groups. In these groups (even a group of two) we need to feel safe, that they are not a threat. We are able to offer and receive love.
There is an inevitability that we will hurt others through our thoughtlessness, defences and selfishness at times (even if this isn’t intentional) and, of course, others will hurt us. In order to re-establish the loving and secure status quo, some kind of repair needs to happen. In adult humans this is usually in the form of an apology.
It is damage to the relationship that needs to be repaired.
Some people struggle with this. Due to their own low self-esteem or grandiosity their priority is not to repair the relationship but to repair the illusion that they can do no wrong. Apologising, for them, would mean acknowledging two things: that they are in the wrong and that they need the relationship. Instead of a genuine apology, they offer a repair to their own self-conceptdressed up as a genuine apology. This can be very subtle and can take different forms:
- Blaming Others – this is an attempt to deny any responsibility (people often muddle up responsibility and blame) or at least bring the other person down to their current level of shame, especially if the hurt party is partially responsible. More grandiose individuals seem to keep a grudge book of others’ imperfections to be dug out as some kind of defence at these times e.g. “Well, I remember 3 years ago you…..”
- Refusal – more entitled individuals believe they have a right to behave however they want without any consequences. This isn’t subtle at all. The hurt party is under no illusions that a repair is not going to be made. This is often followed by a period of withdrawal (sometimes on both sides) then a gradual return to “normality”, as though the hurt never happened.
- Compensation – this is the offering of material objects e.g. flowers, chocolates etc or compensatory behaviours e.g. going out of their way to do something they know the hurt party needs or values. The hurt party remains hurt as no regret or empathy has been expressed.
- Explanations –this maintains for them the impression that they are guiltless. Explanations can be very intricate as the person goes into great detail about how they “thought about buying you a birthday present” but found themselves “snowed under at work that day” and then “the traffic was a nightmare on the way home”. Never mind that your birthday is on the same day each year so they have had a whole year to think about and action this. At no point is there any recognition of your hurt. An explanation demonstrates a head understanding of the reason for the hurt but no heart understanding or sorrow for your pain.
- Statements of Intentions – “But I meant to get you a lovely present”. Your hurt at not receiving a present is experienced as an attack on their self-concept rather than you highlighting that their behaviours have hurt you. They need to reinstate their self-concept quickly by explaining to you that they are not a bad person. Or, they express indignation or rage that you think they are a bad person, when you haven’t said that at all.
“Sorry” is an expression of empathy regardless of whether the hurt was meant or not or if it could have been avoided.
If you are unsure if you have received an apology, the evidence is in how you feel. If you are left feeling confused, hurt, cold or like you are the world’s worst critic then the “apology” hasn’t been genuine. Many relationships suffer the death by a thousand cuts of unrepaired hurts as it is impossible to restore intimacy, one of the cornerstones of successful relationships (alongside commitment and shared goals).