What if my abusive partner apologizes?


It’s one of the first words we learn, and we continue to use it throughout our lives to express grievance or pain. We teach children to say “sorry” (or an equivalent term in their native language) from an early age. When they do something offensive, impolite or unacceptable, they are taught that they can simply say “sorry” to make the situation okay again. The opportunities to practice and enhance the skill of using the word “sorry” since early life development are ongoing, reinforcing the instinct to apologize.

Another thing children learn from a young age, whether explicitly or implicitly, is about concepts of power and equality. Abuse is a learned behavior, and we often see children modeling social dynamics of those they see around them while growing up. If a child grows up in an environment where someone is asserting dominance, that child may grasp the idea that dominance is normal, including what it takes to become the dominant person and how it may feel to be dominated. This means the child may themselves begin to desire or seek power and control over others, which can lead to unhealthy or abusive behaviors later in life. On the opposite side, the child may also develop empathy toward those being victimized, or even feel that it is normal not to have power and control over their own decisions, which may set them up to be more tolerant of abuse in the future.

It’s important to remember that experiencing or witnessing abuse as a child does not cause someone to be abusive or victimized as an adult, or excuse any abusive behavior. Abuse is a choice — anyone can choose to abuse or not abuse.

When “Sorry” Isn’t Enough

Research has demonstrated that saying “sorry” doesn’t work well when the actions taken to apologize do not match those used to develop or enhance trust between those parties. Human relationships are founded on trust, a trait built up through authenticity, empathy, and logic. According to initial scientific studies, the human brain derives a sense of reward as trust is being earned and as the individual becomes more trustworthy. Therefore, acting with honesty (words matching actions) when apologizing can strengthen trust in a relationship.

What does this mean? A real apology doesn’t end at saying “sorry”—it’s also essential to rebuild any trust that has been broken in order to truly mend the relationship.

Often in abusive relationships, we see abusive partners apologizing with little to no willingness to make changes towards nurturing a healthy relationship, or behaving differently in the future. We may see them using “sorry” as a child might, just wanting to say the magic word to make the situation okay again, without facing the consequences of their choices. We sometimes even hear abusers using apologies as a way to further manipulate their partners or avoid truly taking responsibility for their actions, “I’m sorry I hurt you, but you shouldn’t have gotten me so angry. While this may sound like an apology, it places the blame back on the victim for the abuser’s choice to hurt them. Research and outcomes of a variety of partnerships in a variety of contexts, including intimate partnerships, have shown that self-centering approaches such as this will not drive collaboration, a core success factor in partnerships. Only when an abusive partner takes accountability for their actions and begins steps to prevent the behavior in the future (Battering Intervention, counseling, etc.) can they really begin to make amends.

Additionally, frequent use of “sorry” may reduce the effectiveness of an apology, and it can undermine trust the recipient is placing in the person apologizing. At The Hotline, we often see survivors whose self confidence and ability to trust have been diminished as the result of someone exercising power and control over them. They may not feel they have the option refuse to accept an apology, or to tell their partner that “sorry” simply isn’t enough for the pain they have caused. Apologies may stop being meaningful to them when they hear “sorry” so often, yet the abuse does not stop, and they may begin to lose hope that things will ever change. If you are experiencing abuse, you always have the right to refuse an apology. You always deserve to feel safe, happy and respected in your relationship, regardless of how forgiving you’ve been in the past.

If any of these themes sound familiar to you, our advocates are here 24/7 to talk to about it. Call us at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or chat at thehotline.org.

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