THE BLOG
07/28/2016 10:28 am ET Updated Jul 29, 2017

The Art Of The Apology

Like anyone, I've been through a couple less-than-stellar breakups in my lifetime.

One occurred with a woman who was a regular customer at a club I used to work. She was dumping me, and when we parted ways I told her: "This isn't going to be fun for me, so please, one favor? Don't contact me."

Since I wasn't in control of the breakup, I wanted to maintain some semblance of power over what was happening in my life. I wanted the separation to be as permanent as possible. Carrying on as friends like nothing was wrong wasn't a viable option.

Unfortunately, she didn't agree, and would call me randomly.

She didn't want to get back together, probably, but she wasn't 100% positive, how was I doing, no, we shouldn't get back together, maybe, but she just wanted to talk to me, to hear my voice...

It exhausted me.

By the time I was slated to return to her city, things were fairly strained between us. I had been alternately ignoring and taking her calls, and I felt like a yo-yo tied to her whims. The week before my arrival, I sent what I thought was a respectful little email: "Hey, I don't know if you know this, but I'm coming to town, and I know you like hanging out at the club, but it would mean a lot to me if for just this one weekend you wouldn't. If I could be allowed to just slip in and out without having to deal with the emotions of the breakup, it would be a lot easier on me. Thanks."

Naturally, she not only showed up, but did so with her new boyfriend in tow. Her attitude, as she later explained, was, "Hey, I hang out here and shouldn't have to stay away just because you can't deal with it."

I avoided her, went about my business, and that was that.

A week later, however, she blogged about what a jerk I was, and how she was above the petty emotions I had. In my eyes, it was the perfect "I needed that to get over you" move.

Several years went by, and I attended the wedding of one of my oldest friends. At one point while we visited, my friend asked about my ex. At that moment, surrounded by joyous people celebrating love and union, I had that alcoholic's moment of clarity--danke, Pulp Fiction. I decided I didn't want any bad blood in my past, and that I should reach out to her. I didn't want to be friends, or even a casual acquaintanceship, but I did feel that as things had ended somewhat sloppily, that little mess could be tidied up.

Riding the high of my good mood, I sent an email stating: "I'm sure there were points in the breakup where I acted poorly, and I'm sorry for any behavior of mine that may have been perceived as hurtful."

The response I got was "Apology accepted," along with a smiley face.

While I didn't think I had been apologizing to hear it in return, I immediately realized that was indeed the case. I had expressed regret for my actions not because I believed I had done her any wrong, but because I assumed that opening a dialogue might pave the way to a better closing note than had previously sounded. When that moment didn't arrive--when I wasn't told she was sorry for not honoring any of my wishes or for flaunting her current boy-toy in front of me--I was...

Well, to be honest, I don't know how I felt.

I wasn't hurt or angry, I wasn't really surprised... if anything it made sense. I had acted with selfish intent; my words were a wolf in sheep's clothing. Though an apology, my email was an attempt to trick her into asking forgiveness of me. My actions were entirely inappropriate, because apology should come from a point of genuine emotion or reason. That way, if it is not reciprocated, no offense is taken.

I make that last statement, because it is one of the most natural of human exchanges; if two people have a disagreement or a spat, one will eventually say, "I'm sorry," causing the other to respond in kind, "I'm sorry, too." When the second person forgoes that responsibility, it leaves the first person hanging.

We've all been there.

A friend and I got into a row, and stopped talking to one another. Though his hand in the matter was almost as tainted as mine, I knew I had done wrong by him. I felt manning up and apologizing was the right thing to do, and did so. I don't know if he mulled it over, but eventually we began speaking again and remained friends.

The thing is, he never apologized for his part in the disagreement; I never got an "I'm sorry, too."

I've always remembered that fact, even years later. It doesn't weigh on me, but I haven't forgotten it.

Between those two moments--with my ex and with the friend--I learned the valuable lesson mentioned earlier: Never apologize to hear the phrase repeated your way. With the ex, I didn't feel I had anything to be sorry for, but was subconsciously interested in hearing words of contrition from her.

When she wasn't remorseful, I was offended, but later realized it was my fault for entering the situation with disingenuous intent. Conversely, I apologized to my friend because I knew full well I had done harm and had to own up to it. When he refused to acknowledge his actions, I wasn't offended. I had done what I thought was right and could now exist with a clear conscious.

(The probability exists that he sleeps fine at night, too, feeling justified in his actions. Character flaws wear many faces.)

So, what is the point of my rambling?

I guess it's the idea that apology is about absolution, and amends. You apologize because it relieves an ache in your soul, or because it is the honorable action.


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