Many of you may have heard of the “cycle of violence” that is commonly associated with domestic abuse. For those of you who haven’t, it is a cyclical pattern that involves a tension building stage, followed by an explosive episode of abuse, and then a “honeymoon” period where the abuser may act contrite, give gifts, commit to changing and/or apologize. What I’m going to talk about today is what an abuser’s apology is like. It will make you feel exactly the opposite of how you should feel when you receive an apology; off-balance, unsettled, unsure of yourself, like you’re going crazy…and this is exactly what they want.
When you are with someone you love, who is abusing you, it is easy for them to manipulate you (and even abuse you further) with an apology. You really want to believe that they are sorry, and the behavior will stop. What we need to recognize though, are the differences in motivation between abusive and non-abusive apologies. True apologies come from a place of deep remorse that one person has for hurting another person. Someone who is really sorry for something they’ve done to you, will never require you to accept their apology or make you feel like you need to apologize to them. A non-abusive person, will take full responsibility for their actions. They will want to know if/how they can make amends….and follow through with action. The motivation behind a sincere apology is to heal a relationship. Abusers, however, are motivated by something quite different. They are not actually remorseful that they’ve hurt you. When they apologize it is because they are sorry that they got caught, sorry that they may have to deal with the consequences of their behavior, or sorry that they may lose someone that they can exploit for wide range of benefits.
In my relationship, I was given a number of what I refer to as “abusive apologies”. Very often I would hear the infamous “but” apology. You know, the one where they say they’re sorry, then blame their behavior on something else, or worse, you. “I’m sorry but I was stressed, I’m sorry but I had a bad childhood, I’m sorry but you pushed my buttons, I’m sorry but you should have listened”, are all examples of abusive “but” apologies. In fact, there happens to be a name for this; blame-shifting. What it does, is allows the abuser to be absolved of any serious wrongdoing and shifts responsibility for his behavior away from himself. As a result, he doesn’t have to put any effort into making amends for what he did, he is free to do it again, and his perception of himself as a decent, guilt free human being remains intact.
Even before I was willing to admit to myself that I was in an abusive relationship, these kinds of apologies just felt wrong. Frequently, I would refuse to accept them, which would prolong the abuse. Whenever I said I either did not accept or wasn’t ready to accept his apology, he would demand that I do so and punish me further. My abuser would rage, push, shove, blame, break things, guilt-trip, block me from leaving and throw angry crying tantrums until I was completely exhausted, and usually physically ill. In this state, I often found myself apologizing to him; accepting the blame just to stop the torture. In the earlier years, he was even successful in manipulating me into believing that it actually was my fault. What I didn’t realize though, is that I was giving him exactly what he wanted. I was simultaneously affirming his power over me and giving him a complete release from liability. He had successfully created a situation that ideal for him; one in which I would be unlikely to express any grievances because I knew that I would never get a loving and sincere apology. Rather, I would be further abused and made to believe that everything was my fault.
Abusers live in a world where you are a mere extension of themselves. Therefore, it is threatening to them (and their perceived control over you) when you express a problem with their behavior towards you. As such, they may apologize, but they will do it in a damaging way that reasserts their power and control in the relationship. No one should ever use an apology to shift the blame onto you. No one should ever make you feel bad for refusing their apology. The former is a crazy-making, manipulative tactic that inverts reality. As for the latter; your forgiveness is yours to give, whenever you’re ready.