How bad apologies kill healthy relationships
I was recently reminded of the terrific cost of a failed apology—a SORRYNOTSORRY “ in the current Internet parlance. This story is a good illustration of the high stakes of an apology gone wrong—and how to get it right.
Suzanne, a Texan in her thirties requested a phone consultation with me because her younger sister Marietta hadn’t spoken to her in almost a year. She feared they might be heading for a lifelong cutoff. Since cutoff was a family tradition over generations, the stakes were, indeed, high.
Here’s what happened as Suzanne told it: the night of their mother’s funeral service a year earlier, Suzanne had too much to drink and said some cruel things to Marietta. Her angry words were fueled by grief, and by her accumulated anger that Marietta, who lived across the country, had done almost none of the caretaking for their mother.
On the fateful night in question, Suzanne accused her sister of never having loved their mother, and of caring only about the inheritance, and when she woke up the next morning she felt so ashamed that she couldn’t bring herself to apologize. So all she said to her sister about the night before was, “I think I had too much to drink.” She said this with a nervous laugh. Later she learned that the laugh pushed her sister over the edge.
After Suzanne returned home and realized that Marietta was barely speaking to her, she offered numerous belated apologies. Marietta, however, didn’t respond to her bids for connection. Faced with being stonewalled, Suzanne began to feel like she was the victim. She now blamed Marietta for being rigid and unforgiving.
As I questioned Suzanne about the specifics of her apologies, it was clear to me why her fence-mending efforts were going nowhere. At first, Suzanne had said nothing to her sister after insulting her. Later she offered endless sorrys that were empty of accountability for her hurtful accusations. Suzanne’s sorrys went like this:
“I said some terrible things that night. I am so sorry that you had to hear them.”
“I’m so sorry that you felt so hurt. You know how much I love you.”
“I am so sorry that what I said seems to have ruined our relationship.”
“Please forgive me. I’m sorry that when I drink too much I say things I shouldn’t.”
What were wrong with Suzanne’s apologies? Well, everything. Her tearful apologies were full of emotion, but she never offered a direct, unequivocal, expression of guilt, remorse and regret for the words she had spoken.
She didn’t get down on her proverbial knees the morning after to offer one true apology that might have gone something like this:
Marietta, I have no words to express how sorry I am that I said hurtful, outrageous comments that I do not believe. I don’t expect you to forgive me and right now I can’t forgive myself. I only want you to know that in the light of day, I do not believe any of those things. I can only promise you that I will never again say such hurtful and untrue words or attack you out of my own anxiety and grief. There is no excuse for what I said.
As a result of our telephone consultation, Suzanne decided to send a handwritten card to her sister that did express direct, unambiguous responsibility and remorse for her hurtful words and for her earlier failed apologies. The last I heard, the two sisters were back on speaking terms but their relationship was extremely strained and distant. In my professional work I am struck by how often sibling relationships fall apart around the life-cycle stage of caring for elderly parents, and dealing with a parent’s death and its aftermath. Grief so often turns into angry cutoffs.
I hope that Suzanne can follow her good apology with further healing conversations, and resist falling back into defensive, muddled mode. I also hope that Marietta can soften up. A sister relationship is a big thing to lose.
Nor can we orphan ourselves from our first family. When we cut off from a close family member, that person often becomes an even bigger presence inside us. Make sure your apology is a direct expression of responsibility, regret and remorse. With no excuses or add-ons!