By Tanya WarringtonI used to assume that any apology from my first husband was a sign that he was willing to change his behavior. As the apologies stacked up, I thought he was trying but just wasn't having much success. Regardless of my conscious thoughts, my emotions took each apology to mean that from now on there was a fresh start, signifying a significant new shift in commitment and behavior.
It didn't matter how optimistic I was, however. Near the very end of our relationship, I knew he'd never change-- not unless he sought help and then fully engaged in the healing process. When I went to a domestic violence shelter and began an educational class on abuse dynamics, he began participating in an abuser support group. My battered hopes soared once again. Maybe, this last apology had been real, maybe now he'd change. It turned out that he spent his sessions lying, recoloring what had happened to make himself look like the concerned, overconscientious guy who was married to a paranoid, oversensitive gal. He was committed to damage control, not to repentance and growth.
Perhaps you've been on a similar roller coaster ride that involves apologies. How do abusive people trick normal intelligence people (and even above average intelligence people) into believing insincere apologies? I'm not a psychiatrist, psychologist, or sociologist. I have no studies proving my ideas, but for what it's worth here are some things I've observed.
Abusive people regularly, even habitually, use our assumptions against us.
They know that we believe that we aren't "stupid enough" to be manipulated.
They know that we want to believe that our partner or parent is a good person.
They know that is the human tendency to assume that others are telling us the truth, especially if they are in our inner circle.
With these assumptions in place they have plenty of room to work on us. Following are some tricks of the trade.
1. They dangle a pretty lure:
- They make an apology a romantic production.They sweep us away with romance and chivalry. The beast is gone and the prince or princess of our dreams has arrived. Romantic words tickle our ears and romantic gestures abound. We are bedazzled and assured that the other one who hurt you isn't real, this kind person is his or her "true" self.
- They give great gifts. After "rough patches" or "tensions" have occurred, an amazing gift arrives. We feel touched. Who would spend such a lavish amount, if they didn't care?
2.They pull a bait and switch:
- They apologize for nothing in particular. In the same way that readers fill in a missing word when they are reading an article, we fill in the particulars for them.
- They apologize for the wrong thing. For example, if he bruised your arm he might say, "I'm so sorry that I was cranky earlier today."
- The apology includes the claim that he/she has been trying really hard to change.He or she looks at us with a very earnest face. We are wired to root for the hardworking underdog, so we react. Our actual experience is that nothing has changed, but he/she insists that he/she is doing much better really and why haven't you noticed. You haven't noticed because it isn't real. But you assume he/she would be telling the truth, so you beat yourself up for not noticing the improvement and being "so particular and hard-hearted."
- The apology is really about blaming someone else. We notice how quickly the apology turns to talking about work or other family, etc--but we discount it. We accept the half phrase of apology and try to catch up with the conversation. Or we object at the fast shift and he/she looks at us with shock and then hurt. How could we miss their sincere apologies? Don't we trust them and believe in them? The hook is set, we feel bad about doubting them or about not paying attention and we rush to reassure them.
3. They use a hook with a wicked barb:
- They apologize in a way that makes you feel bad. After you complain about verbal abuse, she might say, "I'm sorry. I know that you're really sensitive. I'm sorry I'm always making you mad by saying the wrong thing. I should know by now that I need to be extra careful about what I say around you." The barb is set, you forget about what she did and worry about what is wrong with you that she needs to be so careful.
- The apology is accompanied by emotional and/or physical withdrawal. The apology you are looking for after abuse is attached to the negative consequence of broken relationship for awhile. You feel an extra need for reassurance after the abuse, some sign that their is still love in this relationship and instead you get the opposite. It makes you wonder if hearing an apology for the abuse is worth it. You start wondering how you can make things better between you and them.
- The apology is full of sarcasm and accusation. But if you confront it, their face and tone instantly change. How could you think they were sarcastic? You have no idea how deeply sorrowful they are at the mere idea of hurting you. You wonder if you are going crazy.
- The apology is full of victim-ease. He just couldn't help himself. He is so damaged he just can't stand it. He is broken, so broken. He needs more of your love and help. He wants to do better, he really does. With your help maybe he can be a better man.
Any healthy person may be guilty of doing some of these things some of the time. But I believe that abusers turn these escapes from taking responsibility for themselves into an art form. Learning to observe your own reactions to apologies may be the fastest way to detect when the other party is up to something. Something that is not for your benefit. Consider trusting your gut more and implementing boundaries (such as "Let me think about this. Let's talk about it again tomorrow").