Anyone can be a jerk, but it takes a relatively self-aware person to realize they’ve been a jerk and apologize. What’s less understood is the fact that you can still be a jerk on the other side of the apology. One of the fastest ways to do that is to demand that you be forgiven now that you’ve said you were sorry. We all know these people; perhaps we’ve all wondered what’s wrong with them. We may never uncover their deepest machinations, but at least on occasion we’re given permission to gawk at their weird internal logic. This week, advice-seeker “NAT” presents one such opportunity. He asks of the advice columnist The Ethicist at The New York Times:
My girlfriend and I are in college. She caught me cheating on her and broke up with me. A week later, we met for coffee. I apologized from the bottom of my heart. (I’m really sorry!) She accepted my apology, but she stopped returning my texts and won’t go out with me again. What should I do now?
Uhhh, die in a fire?
We have no insight into the details of NAT’s transgressions: Did he cheat with a stranger or his girlfriend’s sister? Did she actually walk in on him doing it, or just catch him by discovering a pattern of likes on Instagram? These are precisely the sorts of details that we need to render a clear verdict on his crimes; yet these are precisely the details that someone who thinks just apologizing after being a jerk should be good enough to get back in someone’s good graces.
Everyone makes mistakes. We are all deeply flawed people who screw up and hurt the very people we love. But such broad platitudes ignore the fact that are degrees of screwing someone over. Some of them are genuinely innocent; others are deliberate betrayals that are less the result of honest mistakes and more the function of someone who simply isn’t mature enough or present enough to be a good mate.
A big part of resolution is owning your mistakes completely in a way that demonstrates real sincerity and insight, alongside a plan that promises to never make the same mistakes again. Even then, it doesn’t mean you haven’t totally burned the bridge. As psychologists often say, there is a huge difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. As therapist Ryan Howes writes at Psychology Today, “In my model, forgiveness is an internal process where you work through the hurt, gain an understanding of what happened, rebuild a sense of safety, and let go of the grudge (more on how to forgive here). The offending party is not necessarily a part of this process.”
Get that? While it’s always good to be sorry and say out loud that you’re sorry when you treat someone like crap, don’t mistake that for some kind of slate cleaner that’s going to make things okay, re-open the door for you to make amends, or allow you to stay in touch. Clearly, some people think that by apologizing, you not only still get to have the friendship or relationship, but that you’ve effectively pushed the reset button, too.
This is not how apologizing works.
Things apologies are:
The sincere, accountable, heartfelt thing you say when you mess up, hoping to make things right, yet knowing full well the person has every right to never talk to you again, because maybe you totally damaged the critical foundation of trust necessary for a positive relationship.
Things apologies are not:
A Teflon coating on a nonstick frying pan that makes your screw up slide off into the sunset like it never happened.
A confession of sin that is washed clean by simply admitting to it and saying a certain number of prayers.
A magic wand that confers amnesia over the geographical boundaries of your mistake, leaving just the good memories.
A time machine that goes back and undoes your bad thing while preserving all the other better choices you made, leaving the positive connection intact.
Wait, but isn’t forgiveness about rising above someone’s mistakes? Realizing it wasn’t personal? Accepting someone as human, complex and flawed? And loving them anyway? Doesn’t actually accepting an apology mean you’ve let go of the hurt?
We live in a culture that preaches forgiveness. Victims of crimes, lies or other bad behavior are encouraged for the sake of their own inner peace to transcend, forgive and let go. To be the bigger person. Holding a grudge is bad business, or as the saying goes, it’s like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. Still being angry at someone who wronged you is letting the terrorists win.
But what we discuss less is what happens in between the forgiving and the still knowing this person. You can forgive, but that doesn’t mean you have to still deal with this person. You can let go of a grudge and accept that we’re all human and make mistakes, but that doesn’t mean you have to let someone back into your life, business, or bed. Sometimes the distance between peace of mind of forgiveness and the reconciliation of actually still putting up with someone can be measured in literal miles. Forgive, yes, but for your sanity, you may need to stay very very far away forever.
My working theory is that the same people who think saying sorry should mean they are instantly forgiven are the same people who are not actually capable of real apologies. Real apologies don’t hedge. They don’t make excuses. They don’t pivot to a brand-new excuse for why they did the same thing they always do. You know these people: They are so, so sorry, “but,” the following things — usually something you did — are why what they did isn’t really their fault. They are super sorry you feel the way you do, but missing is their complicity in creating that feeling for you. They feel so badly about what they did, only they keep doing it. And when you don’t instantly forgive them, they balk. “But I said I’m sorry!” they insist, as if this is supposed to make it all better.
In other words, the sort of person who gets the apology right also likely knows it means you reserve the right to never put up with them again.
Back at The Ethicist, NAT claims he apologized “from the bottom of his heart” for cheating, but all that means is that he said he was super super sorry in some way that may or may not mean he actually understands what he did, much less proves he won’t do it again. Which is why the girlfriend’s and the Ethicist’s response is pretty right on:
Leave her alone. And chalk this up to a valuable lesson on apologies. It’s great that you expressed sincere regret. But sadly, apologies do not erase the tape. (You still cheated.) Your former girlfriend accepted your statement of remorse, but seems to have decided not to continue dating a man who cheated on her. This may make you sad or angry. That’s O.K. We all make mistakes. Just don’t be angry with her; she didn’t do anything wrong. For more information, listen to Bob Dylan’s indispensable “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”
I would argue that, while that is a great song, things are not necessarily all right just because it’s time to travel on. It’s just how it goes. Screwing up is human; forgiveness is advised. But no one anywhere has to still put up with you just because after you got to be a jerk, you felt really really bad about it.