Updated: Nov 2, 2020
Having to sit with an injury received at the hands of someone you care about, and must continue to relate to, is pretty challenging. More so when that injury is major, and where there are high levels of injustice and anger associated with the injury. It gets ever more complicated where the injury is one of many, or chronic and ongoing, or likely to result in new harm occurring to others (like your children or spouse). Where a serious offence is unacknowledged, denied or diminished, the barrier to ongoing authentic relating is massive. When family or other group culture supports the perpetrator of the harm - thus enabling the perpetrator's denial of the injury - the impact of this unacknowledged injury can spread toxically. The result is a wounded person who has no avenue for authentic connecting with the person and also within the group, and with no avenue for the injustice-fuelled anger to express itself. If that group is your family of origin, well, that really sucks.
Harriet Lerner is a psychologist, a world renown relationship expert, and writer in the area of relationship repair, personal growth, and learning to be authentic in relationships. I love her writing. Through applying her wisdom to my life I have been able to make significant improvements in my relationships, taking steps towards greater honesty, greater courage, more wisdom when addressing the hard topics of conversation, more authenticity and vulnerability when it is needed with the people I love.
She has recently written a book about the importance of apologies, how to deliver one well, and how to approach someone who has done you wrong in a way that increases the chance that a heart-felt apology will result. This book "Why Won't you Apologize" is an excellent resource, and the following TED talk by her is a good overview of the book:
Apologies are central to ongoing healthy relating for all people, in every relationship we exist in. The closer the relationship, the more important it is that we posses the capacity to apologize well. When apologies are absent, or go wrong, they can lead to the end of a relationship. When there is a long history of historical wrongs that have never been addressed, acknowledged or even seen, the barriers to reconciliation can seem insurmountable.
In an interview with Forbes Magazine Harriet explains the power of a good apology:
“I’m sorry” are the two most important words in the English language. Without the possibility of restoring trust and mending broken fences the inherently flawed experience of being human would feel impossibly tragic. A good apology is deeply healing while an absent or bad one can compromise and even end a relationship.
She goes on to explain why those who are hoping for an apology from a serial non-apologiser may need to find a way to let go, because the wait is likely to be in vain:
Some people who hurt you will never apologize and the worse the harm, the less likely an apology will ever be forthcoming. In order to apologize for a serious harm, a person needs to have a big platform of self-worth to stand on. From this higher vantage point they can look out at their mistakes and see them as part of a larger, complex, ever-changing picture of who they are as a human being. But people who do serious harm stand on a small rickety platform of self-worth. They can’t allow themselves to really experience the harm they’ve done because to do so would flip them into an identity of worthlessness and shame. The worse the harm, the greater the shame, the more the wrongdoer will wrap himself tightly in a blanket of rationalization, minimization and denial. The inability to listen, to orient to reality, to take responsibility, has nothing to do with how much that person loves you. It has to do with how much self-worth that person has to draw upon. We can’t bestow this upon anyone but ourselves. The non-apologizer walks on a tightrope of defensiveness above a huge canyon of low self-esteem.
Mmm, that's a bit of truth. For me at least, I can think of 2 or 3 serial non-apologisers in my life, whose failure to see and accept the harm they have done has been chronically damaging to me and to others I care about. Waiting for them to join the rest of us in the real world has been a futile venture. It remains a challenge to continue to relate to such a person, because trust, vulnerability and honesty are almost impossible. Where these fundamental components of relationship are absent the capacity for closeness slowly shrivels until being seen, and seeing the other, is pretty much over. That's pretty grim if that person is someone you deeply love and still wish to be connected to. The upside of this though is that the realisation that while you cannot change the attitude or the maturity of the non-apologiser, you can change your expectation that they will recognise the offence and move towards you to heal the rift. If they entirely lack the capacity to own or acknowledge the offence then it is much better for everyone concerned to get with reality as soon as possible, let go of hope for change and move on. Perhaps doing so may release the wounded person to a new way of interacting with the non-apologiser which is more safe for them, and more realistic. There is freedom in that I think.
If you liked listening to Harriet's TED talk and have appetite for a bit more on this topic, you could listen to her interview with Brene Brown through the following link: https://brenebrown.com/podcast/harriet-lerner-and-brene-im-sorry-how-to-apologize-why-it-matters/