When is an abuser’s apology not an apology?

When is an abuser’s apology not an apology? September 25, 2015


Dear John,

When I was a teenager my father molested me. Today I am a happily married woman with a wonderful family. Awhile back I finally decided to call my father and tell him how much harm he did to my life with what he did.

At first he said he couldn’t remember what he had done to me, but then he apologized for it. I could tell he meant his words of regret. I could even hear that he was crying.

Here’s the problem. Even though I want to forgive my dad–even though I told him that I did forgive him, because at the time it felt like I did–I find that I am still as angry at him as I ever was. But I also feel that anger toward him is the wrong emotion for me to have, since when someone apologizes you’re supposed to forgive them in your heart. But his apology just has not led me to the emotions it should. Any advice you could give me about why, or what I should do about this, would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

So, when it comes to emotions, there’s no such thing as “should”—except that the emotions you’re having at any given time are exactly the emotions you should be having. But there is no such thing as a bad or wrong emotion. Emotions are a real response to something that’s happened. It’s impossible for feelings to come out of nowhere, in other words. They’re caused. A negative emotion is there to tell you that something actually bad actually happened to you—or, in your case, that something good which was supposed to happen to you didn’t.

You were supposed to get from your father a real apology.

But I’d bet my house—his initial “failure” to remember molesting you tells me for sure—that what you got from him instead was the real apology’s evil twin, the false apology.

Which has left you confused. Your brain is telling you that you got a real apology; your heart is telling you that you didn’t, at all.

And in such matters the heart always knows best.

It can be extremely difficult to tell false apologies from real ones. Especially those given by sexual or physical abusers, who are almost always practiced experts at disguising the former as the latter.

Below is a little guide to the differences between a real and false apology/apologizer.

Send this to your father, to let him know that you do know these differences, that he hasn’t fooled you into thinking that his hot bullshit smells like fresh flowers.


The false apologizer …

Seeks to make himself feel better, not you. When the deliverer of a false apology says, “I wish I hadn’t made your life worse,” what he really means is, “I wish I hadn’t made my life worse.” His apology is all about making himself feel better, not you. He is seeking to be relieved of the burden of no longer being able to think of himself as an admirable and honorable person—and he’s looking to you to offer him that relief. He abuses; you call him on his abuse; now he’s forced to think of himself as an asshole who abuses people; he doesn’t like that; he “apologizes” to you; you forgive him; you go away; he goes back to thinking of himself as a winner. Perfect! For him, anyway. For you, not so much. All that happened to you is that he used you, yet again, to meet his own selfish needs. Massive apology fail.

Seeks to avoid responsibility for the consequences of his actions. Abusing a person engenders a whole host of real-life consequences for that person. The goal of the false apologizer is often to deflect or eradicate responsibility for all of the consequences of his abuse. He doesn’t want to go to jail, lose his job, get kicked out of his church, be ostracized by his family: He doesn’t want his social status in any way negatively impacted by what he’s done. He fervently desires to maintain the status quo—the version of reality, that is, where he’s not an abusive SOB). When, in the course of his false apology, he says things like, “I know you’re feeling hurt,” what he really means is, “I know I didn’t really hurt you at all; stop being crazy.” He will deftly dance around (or stomp right through) all accountability for anything he did or said. And why should he be held accountable for what he’s done? He’s apologized, hasn’t he? What else can he possibly do? The rest is all up to you now, isn’t it? Because that’s fair.

Seeks to shift pity away from his victim and onto himself.  Woven into the fabric of nearly every false apology is, “Oh, how I am suffering! How deserving of pity am I!” The emotional reasoning behind the “Not thee, but me!” false apology is: Badness causes agony; whomever is closest to the source of badness suffers the most agony; therefore, no one suffers more as a result of wrongness done than the person who did the wrong. As to the victim of that wrongdoing? Well, that’s her problem, isn’t it? But is she so cold, so callous, so hardened in her resentment, and blinded by her anger—is she so far removed from God—that she can’t even bring herself to acknowledge the humanity of the apologizer who is crying out for her (and everyone else’s within earshot) compassion, for her understanding, for her forgiveness? Ugh. It’s like Dracula, a pale limp body at his feet, wailing about his exorbitant dry-cleaning bill.

Is simply responding to getting caught. Don’t you find funny how contrite people feel for the wrong they’ve done after they’ve been caught doing it? Yeah, me neither. When the deliverer of a false apology cries, “I feel so bad,” what they usually mean is, “I feel so bad that I got caught.” Yes, being caught doing wrong can trigger genuine remorse. But if the apologizer felt so bad about what they did, wouldn’t they have apologized before they got caught? Gnashing your teeth and rending your clothes is one thing; waiting to do the same until the spotlight is on you and the cameras are rolling is another. Always take with a grain of salt the sincerity of the agonized apologizer after they’ve been caught.


The real apologizer …

Is motivated solely by concern for his victim.

Has no agenda for his victim.

Does not judge, question, or comment upon any aspect of his victim’s response to his apology.

Asks for absolutely nothing from his victim, including forgiveness.

Throughout his apology remains calm and soft-spoken, never falling into even the slightest dramatic or histrionic display of emotion.

In deferential silence listens to every last thing his victim has to say—no matter how long, or in how many ways, it takes her to say it.

Freely accepts unqualified responsibility for all of the consequences, both long and short term, of the harm he caused his victim.

Offers all possible forms of restitution to his victim, immediate and long-term, and most certainly not excluding financial.

Volunteers to confess his transgressions to every person or group his victim wants him to.

Volunteers to do anything his victim asks of him, most certainly including forever removing himself from his victim’s life, immediately if that’s what she desires.

Delivers his apology in a way that respects his victim’s boundaries of safety; i.e, in a public place, or by letter.

Presents, delineates and commits to a plan for personal change that is appropriate, long-term, and therapeutic.

Please also read Six Things to Know About Sexual Abuse and Forgiveness, and Must I forgive the brother who sexually abused me for seven years?


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