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What makes for an adequate apology?

The business of apology and forgiveness has been explored by psychologists and has been found to be a needed dynamic in successful relationships.

What makes for an adequate apology? I frequently encounter the issue during the process of psychotherapy with my clients. Someone has offended someone else by cheating on them, spending the family resources secretively on foolishness, abusing, or neglecting them. Psychological research on forgiveness indicates that when an offender says he or she is sorry, the offended person has an easier time forgiving — letting go of the need for justice, vindication, or otherwise balancing the interpersonal scales between them. However a superficial apology will not suffice.

Just as there can be a too-quick apology there can also be an insufficient forgiveness. These are linked. If a couple comes to me and the man has cheated on his wife, and he says, “I’m sorry. I’ll never do that again.” What does she do? Well, sometimes, if she is a Christian, she will know that the Bible calls Christians to forgive, that the Lord’s prayer obliges Christians to forgive. So, she says, “I forgive you.” It happens just like that — either at home before they even get to me or all in one session. They don’t have to be Christians for this to happen, because the notion of the need to forgive is in the public domain. Sometimes it occurs just a couple of weeks after the affair has been found out. However, that is not long enough for the cost to settle in and for the offended person to grasp how deeply he or she has been offended. It takes more time.

When there is an adequate apology, it leads to a more authentic and deeply effective forgiveness. So, what makes for an adequate apology? It consists of three developments in the person of the offender. (1) The offender understands cognitively how what they did or said offended the other person or persons. They get it. They don’t just get THAT someone was offended; they get how THEY offended them. Intellectually they put two and two together and realise in a fit of insight the true nature of their offence. (2) The offender feels regret. While the first thing is “head knowledge,” the second thing is “heart knowledge.” The offender actually feels empathetic. While the first thing is taking the other person’s perspective cognitively, the second thing is taking the other person’s emotional perspective. The offender is grieved and sorrowful over his or her actions or words. (3) The offender makes a determination not to reoffend. While no one is perfect and able to be absolutely consistent, there is a difference with a person who is determined not to create the same difficulty again. They were going in one direction, and they make a 180 degree turn and go in the other direction. They are set on not “going there” again. They take it seriously. They mean it.

Apologising is no guarantee that the offended party is going to forgive. Forgiveness is letting go of the striving to be vindicated, to obtain justice, or to relish revenge. Forgiveness is not forgetting. Forgiveness is not reconciliation. It is entirely possible to let go of the need to balance the scales with someone, but choose not to have a relationship with that person. In some cases to reconcile with someone would be foolish, because the offender has a high risk to reoffend. It is possible to make a full apology, but then to succumb to whatever pressures or temptations caused previous offences. With addicted people, for instance, forgiveness might come long before reconciliation, because a long track record needs to be overcome through a considerable demonstration of recovery.

I don’t think it is possible to really forget serious offences like being abused or betrayed. That does not mean a person carries them around as foreground issues and addresses them at every occasion — the proverbial wearing your feelings on your sleeve. What a person lets go of is not the memory of an experience, but the need to get even or be vindicated because of the experience. The experience is like a static event that can never be erased, but as such it doesn’t have to be given a prominent place and can be set aside through forgiveness.

If a person knows he or she should forgive someone for something, but the offence just happened, the wound is fresh and still hurts quite badly, what is to be done? That is a different situation from the case in which something happened fifteen years ago, and the person is carrying a grudge and going into a fit whenever the offender’s name comes up. If a person believes that forgiveness is called for, then even though these different cases are different, the need is the same. How do you get there?

Often time is required to let the offended person sit with the situation enough to understand it, but after that has happened, then what? I think it calls for a sacrifice. That’s what it called for when Jesus made it possible for God to forgive people for their sins, and that’s what it will take for any one of us to forgive those we feel have offended us. The offence has got to be absorbed, and when it is absorbed, the need for vindication is given up. The need for vengeance is given up. The need for justice is given up. When you absorb the offence, the cost of it sinks in deep, it hurts again or it hurts more intensely. The actual magnitude of the loss becomes more clear, and it ushers in a period of grieving. The Bible says we were bought with a price, and in interpersonal relationships between human beings forgiveness is also bought with a price. When you forgive, you don’t forget, and when you forgive with the purpose of reconciliation, you have to make yourself available to the other person in a way that makes you vulnerable to being hurt all over again.

Those interested in reading more about this subject should consult the following:

“Forgiveness Is a Choice” by Robert Enright; “The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness” by Simon Wiesenthal; and “Forgivness: Theory, Research, and Practice”, edited by Michael McCullough, Kenneth Pargament, and Carl Thoresen.

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Published June 25, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated June 24, 2013 at 7:37 pm)

What makes for an adequate apology?

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