What if my abusive partner apologizes?
Your partner utters the words “sorry” after an argument. It’s one of the first words we learn, and we use it throughout our lives to express grievance or pain. We teach children to say “sorry” when they do something hurtful. They learn that “sorry” can make the situation okay again. The word “sorry” is used for almost everything, reinforcing the instinct to apologize and readily accept apologies. This can make it easier to forgive someone including an abusive partner. But what should you do if your abusive partner apologizes?
Abuse is about power and control
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 model the social dynamics of those around them while growing up. If a child grows up in an environment where someone frequently asserts dominance, that child may believe this is normal. They could also learn how to become a dominant person. The child may begin to desire or seek power and control over others which can lead to unhealthy or abusive behaviors later in life.
Conversely, a child may learn how it feels to be dominated and develop empathy toward those victimized. They may even think it is normal not to have power and control over their decisions. This normalization may make them more tolerant of abuse in the future or more accepting if their abusive partner apologizes.
Remember, abuse is a choice — anyone can choose to abuse or not. If anyone decides to apologize for the abuse, their actions must align with their words.
When “sorry” isn’t enough for an apology
For many, saying “sorry” doesn’t work well if the apology does not match the actions used to repair the harm done. Human relationships are built on trust, created through authenticity, empathy, and logic. According to initial scientific studies, the human brain derives a sense of reward as trust is earned, and as individuals become more trustworthy. Therefore, acting with honesty (words matching actions) when apologizing strengthens trust in a relationship.
So, what if the abusive partner apologizes? A genuine apology doesn’t end with saying “sorry”—it’s also essential to rebuild any broken trust to truly mend the relationship.
How does an abusive partner apologize?
How your partner uses “sorry” is essential. In abusive relationships, abusive partners often apologize but are unwilling to make changes or behave differently. We see them using “sorry” as a child might; to make the situation okay without facing the consequences of their choices. We even hear abusers using apologies to manipulate their partners and avoid taking responsibility for their actions. Some common phrases abusers may use include, “I’m sorry I hurt you, but you shouldn’t have gotten me so angry,” or “I didn’t see healthy relationships growing up and don’t know what to do, I’m sorry.” While this may sound like an apology, it places the blame elsewhere instead of on the abuser’s choice.
Research and outcomes of partnerships in various contexts, including intimate partnerships, have shown these self-centered approaches do not drive collaboration, a core factor in healthy partnerships. Only when an abusive partner takes accountability for their actions and begins steps to prevent the behavior in the future (I.e., battering or counseling focused on changing the abusive mindset) can they begin to make amends.
Experiencing or witnessing abuse as a child does not cause someone to be abusive or victimized as an adult or excuse any abusive behavior.
Apologies can lose meaning
Frequent use of “sorry” can reduce the effectiveness of an apology and undermine the recipient’s trust in the person apologizing, especially if the abuse continues after the apology. The continued abuse can cause survivors to lose hope that things will ever change.
We often see survivors whose self-confidence and ability to trust are diminished because someone exercises power and control over them. If you are experiencing abuse, you always have the right to refuse an apology. However, it may not feel safe to refuse an apology. Due to past violence, survivors might be afraid to tell their partner that “sorry” isn’t enough for the pain they have caused.
Forgiving an abusive partner
Forgiveness can be difficult, and yet many people manage to do this every day with friends, family and coworkers. The path to forgiveness typically involves a wrongdoing, perhaps an apology, and some form of accountability or behavioral change. With all of that said, a survivor is not going to be in a place to forgive abuse if they are still in danger.
If any of these themes sound familiar to you, our advocates are here 24/7 to talk about it. Call us at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or chat at thehotline.org.
You always deserve to feel safe, happy, and respected in your relationship, regardless of how forgiving you’ve been in the past.