by Kassandra Lamb ~ In Part I of this series, I talked about several steps in the process of forgiving someone who has done you harm. They include identifying the deeper significance of our hurt and anger, resolving the conflict with the other person if possible, venting those emotions, and making sure we are safe from future harm from that person. But what if they won’t apologize?
When They Won’t Apologize
Two of the most underused words in America are I’m sorry. We’re a proud people, and also not always terribly enlightened when it comes to handling emotions and relationships.
So sometimes, when we seek to resolve a conflict, the other person reacts with defensiveness. They become more invested in deflecting blame and protecting their ego than in preserving the relationship.
Guilt and Gaslighting
They may secretly feel guilty about their behavior, but pride and ego get in the way, and the guilt turns to anger. How dare you make them feel bad!
And/or they may do something called gaslighting—when one person denies another person’s perception of reality and tries to make them think they are crazy for believing their own eyes and ears.
Warning: buying into someone else’s version of reality when they are gaslighting you is dangerous to your mental health. It undermines your trust in your own perceptions and feelings.
That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t consider other people’s perspectives. Being able to put oneself in the other person’s shoes is often required to resolve a conflict.
And there is always the possibility that you misunderstood something. If the other person’s perspective makes sense in your head and in your heart, then by all means, let it shift your own perspective.
But if you get a queasy feeling in your gut while trying on their perspective for size, trust your gut.
So how do you “resolve the conflict” with someone when they won’t apologize?
This is one of those complicated parts of the forgiveness process. Keeping in mind that we have to be safe from future harm, we have several choices:
- Continue in a relationship but set boundaries with them.
- Continue in a relationship but set up safeguards inside ourselves.
- Love them from afar.
- Let go of the relationship so we can let go of the anger and hurt.
If we are at least able to have a civil conversation, we can let them know that certain behaviors will not be acceptable in the future.
If they seem to realize their behavior was not okay, and do get that it won’t be tolerated in the future, than it may be safe to continue the relationship, even if they won’t apologize.
We can also set up certain safeguards within our own minds and hearts. People aren’t always trustworthy in all areas. So we may realize that we can’t trust them to react appropriately to certain topics of conversation, for example. Or we may avoid certain situations with them.
Love them from afar
When I was a psychotherapist, sometimes my clients taught me things, rather than the other way around. One such client was a woman with a drug-addict daughter. In one session, my client said, “I’ll always love my daughter, but I can’t trust her. I’ve learned to love her from afar.”
“How does that work for you?” I asked.
“I keep contact to a minimum, and when I do talk to her, I remind myself not to trust a word she says. But every morning, I visualize myself hugging her and telling her I love her. This brings me peace and hopefully she feels some sense of being loved.”
I agreed that her approach was a healthy solution to a difficult situation.
Let them go so we can let it go
Depending on the role the person plays in your life and on how grievous their transgression was, you may find that you need to end the relationship.
This, of course, is not a step to be taken lightly. One should give the situation time to play out before making this decision.
Time will also give us a chance to work on some of the early steps in the forgiveness process, and to put our own feelings in perspective. We may then be able to apply one of the other approaches above to stay safe.
But in some cases, this may not work.
If you find yourself still mentally obsessing about the event weeks or months later, this may indicate that the offending behavior struck at one of your core values and/or your sense of identity.
There may be other things going on also, if you are ruminating (more on that in Part III). But it’s time to ask which of your core values—your beliefs about how you should be and behave, in order to be a good person—feels under attack.
Those core values are almost always linked to our sense of identity. So if one of them is being attacked, it may feel like an assault on your very being.
That’s really hard to let go of, if the other party won’t work with you to resolve things and/or won’t apologize.
Sometimes identifying that core value under attack will allow us to rethink and adjust our own perspective. It’s possible the person did not mean what was said or done in quite the way we took it. (But don’t try to talk yourself into this, if you know in your heart they did mean it that way.)
Sometimes it will help us find a way to stay safe from such attacks in the future, so that we can implement one of the other strategies above.
But sometimes we may have to let them go, to protect our very core. We may come to the conclusion that the person just can’t be trusted anymore.
What if they apologize but don’t change
This is another possible scenario. They may mean well at the time of the apology, but not be willing to put in the effort to change their behavior. Or the behavior may be too ingrained. We may be asking the leopard to change his spots.
Or they may believe, perhaps unconsciously, that acknowledging and apologizing is enough. They may have been programmed by earlier life events to believe they have no control, that taking action and changing is not possible for them. (The psychological term for this is learned helplessness.)
Someone dear to me was this way; she rarely got defensive if confronted about something. She was quite psychologically astute and would sit down with the confronting party and analyze the behavior, delving back into her own history to explain where it came from.
I made the mistake of assuming that all this self-analysis meant she’d work on changing the behavior. But she never did.
Once I realized what was going on, I was able to maintain a relationship with her by applying the second strategy above. I set up internal safeguards to try to counter the expectation of change, and I avoided certain situations with her.
Which brings us to…
Forgive and Forget?
Forgiving is a good thing, when done at the right time and in a healthy way. But forgetting? No.
Forgetting means we are vulnerable to being hurt again.
In America, the etiquette for responding to an apology is to say something that minimizes the offense, or even “Forget it.” If the offense is indeed minor, this is fine.
But if it’s a major one, we most definitely should not minimize, forget about it ourselves, nor tell the other party to forget about it.
They need to remember that this particular behavior almost cost them their relationship with you. They need to remember not to repeat that behavior.
And you need to remember to not trust them 100%, at least for a while and/or in certain areas.
So we Americans really should retrain ourselves to say things like, “Apology accepted.” Or there’s a French expression I really like, “N’en parlons plus.” It loosely means “No need to speak of it anymore.”
It’s resolved. We’re not forgetting, but we are letting it go and moving on.
In Part III, more on some things that can get in the way of truly letting it go, and what true forgiveness feels like. Stay tuned!
What do you think is the best way to accept an apology? What have you done in the past in conflicts where the other party won’t own their part in it?
Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida. Plus she has started a new police procedural series, also set in Florida—The C.o.P. on the Scene mysteries. And she writes romantic suspense under the pen name of Jessica Dale.
Misterio press produces an array of quality crime fiction. We post here twice a month, usually on Tuesdays, to alert you to new releases, to entertain, and to inform.
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CrystalApril 3, 2022 at 11:27 am
Forgiving is easier than forgetting especially if somebody has wronged you in traumatic way.
Kassandra LambApril 3, 2022 at 1:25 pm
Very true, Crystal.I hope you’re finding these posts helpful.