The Abuser’s Apology

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.

Much Love,


“Fighting” with an abuser

Marriage and couple’s counselors often say that a couple’s first fight sets the tone for all future conflicts and arguments. The difference in an abusive relationship, is that you aren’t so much “fighting” as experiencing an episode of abuse. Abuse is not about flawed communication or anger issues. Instead, it is characterized by behavioral tactics the abuser uses to establish and maintain power and control over his target…you.  So, the first “fight” in an abusive relationship actually represents a starting place from which your abuser’s behavior will escalate. It may be that this escalation is so subtle that it’s almost imperceptible, or it may happen very quickly.

In my case, as in many, the first “fight” was shocking. We were neighbors and had been in a relationship for about four months at that point. Things were progressing pretty smoothly, we hadn’t really argued about anything. He was (for the most part) sweet, attentive, interesting, and easy-going. The night the shit finally hit the fan, we were walking to a nearby cafe to grab dinner. At the time, I was in a class with a teacher who worked with homeless youth in Portland, Oregon. I had been talking with her about the issues they faced, and frequently had conversations with street kids I came in contact with around the city. As we were walking, I brought up the fact that I felt like people often overlooked the traumas those kids had experienced in life, that I saw it as a complex social issue, and I wished that the focus was more on helping them rather than branding them as lazy or no-good. To my utter disbelief, my abuser suddenly became agitated. He called me naive and began talking about the fact that he had been one of those youths, so he knew that they were all just “scammers from middle class homes”. At first, I just let the comment about my naivete go, and pursued the debate. I wasn’t arguing about what their background was, people from any background can be stricken with a life-changing trauma. I stressed that I was only expressing my opinion, that it was a complex issue, and that my experience was different from his. Oh man, was that ever the wrong choice. In the middle of the sidewalk, he started yelling that I didn’t know what I was talking about, that my teacher didn’t know what she was talking about, that we were both basically academics that had no understanding of “real life”. I was so embarrassed. Completely shocked, I asked him not to talk to me that way. I said I didn’t appreciate the condescension or the fact that he was raising his voice to me in public. Standing up for myself only made things worse though; more yelling, more put downs, more arm flailing. At that point, I said I’d had enough, turned around and started walking home. He followed me for fifteen blocks back to my house, fuming and shouting at me the whole way.

Now, I know that this description probably doesn’t sound that bad, but believe me when I say it got much worse as time went on. My point in sharing this part of my story, is to illustrate some of the dynamics at play in the beginning of an abusive relationship. Specifically, with regard to incidences of abusive behavior early on. These initial episodes will often come as a surprise; a sharp contrast to the persona you’ve come to know up until that point. They will involve him establishing dominance and control through physical/verbal intimidation, by devaluing you as a person, by making you feel inferior and/or embarrassing you. These episodes will also be characterized by a marked lack of respect for any boundaries you attempt to establish. Pay close attention to what happens the first time you ask your partner to stop doing something that makes you feel threatened or degraded. When you ask someone to “stop”, you are essentially setting a boundary that you hope will be respected. An abusive person loves to find out what your boundaries are and will smash right through them. It solidifies their position as the dominate party; the one in control.

Much Love,


On the fire escape

I never thought it would happen to me. NEVER. I never thought I would be in an abusive relationship, much less one that spanned a decade. I was though, and I know there are a lot of women out there who have had the same experience. I know many of you are still in that place. Many others have left, but are still struggling to understand everything that happened. Whatever your situation is, I want you to know that you’re not alone.

One of the most difficult things about domestic abuse, is feeling so alone. You’re the only human being who knows your story, and out of fear, embarrassment or both, you don’t want to tell it to anyone. It is so, so important to tell your story though.

For those of you who are still in a relationship with an abuser, talking about what’s happening to you is the first step towards safety and regaining your sanity. The people who know and love you, can’t help unless they know what’s going on. Even if you are far away from your family (like I was) or you don’t think anyone will care, find someone you trust or call a hotline. In my darkest hours, when I was completely isolated from the people I cared about, I spent many hours on the phone with the advocates at the national domestic violence hotline. Please, call them at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE). I promise, no matter what your situation is, they will listen, they will not judge you and it is completely confidential. For those of you that have left, talking or writing about what happened will help you begin to process a completely crazy situation. Abuse creates such a thick fog in your mind, sometimes it’s hard to remember who you are and what really happened. Your words, written and spoken, are the rays of sunlight that will burn away that fog.

Here, on the fire escape, I will tell you my story and what I’ve learned. Whoever you are, wherever you are, I hope it will help you find your own fire escape.

Much Love,