It is sometimes thought that, if someone hurts us, they need to offer a full and genuine apology. It is then up to us how we choose to respond. If we think they really are sorry, then we usually feel that we can — and perhaps ought to — accept their apology and move on.
This is not necessarily an irrational or reckless response. A sincere apology is a rare and precious thing. It will have taken a great deal of painful inner work. Someone who is genuinely remorseful will have overcome all the self-protecting barriers of denial, self-justification, minimising, victim-blaming, and so on. They must have stepped out of their own skin, and felt something of the pain they caused. They will have seen themselves through the eyes of the one they have hurt, and felt the burning shame of what they have done. So, when we are offered a genuine apology, we have every reason to take this seriously — even if we may not yet be in a space where we can hear it fully.
Even so, an apology is never the final word. The person who offers an apology does so knowing that they cannot undo the past. But what they can do is try to persuade us that they no longer stand by what they did. They are taking back the hurtful and degrading messages that were conveyed by their actions.
But this is not the only thing that an apology should be saying. Unless it is a death-bed apology, it is also a statement about the future. Someone who offers an apology is making a kind of promise: they are asking us to believe that they will not repeat this kind of behaviour.
It follows that an apology is not a full and final payment of the moral debt that we are owed. It is more like a down payment, with the remaining debt yet to be paid out. When we accept an apology, we are not thereby handing over the keys to moral redemption. An apology is only the beginning. Like any promise, it can either be fulfilled or broken.
So, what does this mean in practice?
First of all, if we have been offered a sincere apology, we should not feel that we have given everything away if we accept it. We should expect that there is more to follow. The apology is a step in the right direction, rather than the end of the road.
Second, an apology is always taken on trust. To accept an apology is not like a one-off purchase, where the apology is your take-home product. It is more like agreeing to a contract for ongoing services. In other words, accepting an apology is a way of saying ‘I believe that you mean what you say, and I am willing to trust that you will keep your word’.
Third, an apology must be evidence-based. The acceptance of someone’s apology should not be based upon blind trust. For a start, we must have clear evidence of authentic remorse. But their character and motives are equally important. For instance, we need good evidence that this is someone who we can trust to keep their promises. If they have a history of being manipulative or deceitful, then it would be wise to dial down our expectations accordingly. We need to treat their apology with suspicion until they have proven themselves worthy of it. Their actions need to match their words. In the meantime, we will need to protect ourselves from being hurt again.
Having said this, some people will always struggle to stay on the straight and narrow, no matter how genuinely sorry they might be. They may also have serious mental health issues, a drug or alcohol addiction, a history of abuse, and so on. Ideally, their apology would include a commitment to address these risk factors. But they may not feel able to disclose these issues. So we won’t always know what people are carrying.
Either way, accepting an apology isn’t an inflexible demand for perfection. It’s what we would want if we were in their shoes: a hopeful gesture of trust.
This is an adapted extract from my book Beyond Harm.