If you are contemplating divorce, in the midst of a divorce, or already have a divorce decree in hand, you know pressures of the legal process do not compare to the emotional turmoil you are experiencing. The emotional pressures can be quelled when you give a meaningful and complete apology. It has the effect of freeing you from the weight of the divorce, help heal you and the person you offended, restore your relationships, and even provide you direct legal benefits to your case.
Apologies: The Need to Give and Receive
During the divorce, you process a variety of thoughts and emotions in an attempt to understand what led to the dissolution of your marriage. You conclude that some of these failures were your spouse’s fault and others were yours. Many were a result of both you and your ex-spouse. You may struggle with the shame and guilt you experience for the affair you had or the misuse of your family’s money. You may feel guilty that your marriage failed. You may have even come to terms that this guilt is not going to disappear when the divorce process is over. You are haunted by the thought of having ongoing contact with your ex-spouse and you cannot imagine co-parenting for the next ten years in any healthy way or being at your children’s celebrations with your ex-spouse in the years to come.1 Internal factors, such as shame, guilt or empathy, may motivate a person to apologize as well as external factors, such as restoring a damaged relationship.
These are heavy and weighty issues many divorcees feel. A meaningful and complete apology, however, has the power to heal, relieve you of the humiliations and grudges, and help you establish a more healthy future relationship with your ex-spouse.2 An apology can take you from desiring revenge to a place of acceptance. It has the power to make your situation better and reduce the anger and resentment your ex-spouse has towards you and you have against your ex-spouse.
But even for what is undoubtedly our own fault, most of us find it very hard to apologize. It is hard to admit we were wrong to anyone, especially to an ex-spouse. We worry that if we did apologize, we would feel weak and our spouse would feel superior to us.3 In fact, there is no guarantee that once we put ourselves at the mercy of our spouse that we will be forgiven. If our spouse does not forgive us, would it only result in injury to our pride and self-esteem?
The Apology Risk
Apologies are not easy, but the benefits likely outweigh the risks and your fears. And without an apology, you are likely to face additional short-term and long-term consequences. As you are probably aware, the divorce process can be very nasty. Spouses are pitted against each other to fight for important issues such as time with their children, ownership of the family home, and division of the family estate. An insulted spouse may be too hurt to discuss settlement options and may express his/her anger through litigious tactics. Even in mediation, an insulted spouse would find it difficult to trust the other spouse enough to reach a mediated settlement or forgo tit-for-tat strategies.
An apology, however, can prevent this antagonistic behavior4 and heal the damaged relationship between you and your spouse. Apologies heal because they satisfy at least one - and sometimes several - distinct psychological needs of the offended party. Those needs are: restoration of self-respect and dignity, assurance that you and your ex-spouse still have shared values, and your ex-spouse’s assurance that the offense you are apologizing for was not his or her fault.5 For example, an apology that you are sorry you mismanaged the finances and did not save enough money as your spouse requested for the children’s college fund demonstrates that you understand the value of your children’s education – a value both you and your wife share.
The apology process also allows you and your ex-spouse to keep the past in the past, and create a relationship based on the present circumstances, absent hate and revenge. This gives you an opportunity to deal with your ex-spouse on a more level playing field. Otherwise, the insult from the injury and the indignity your ex-spouse is experiencing can be a large barrier to compromise. It will affect you when you try to settle your case. It will have an emotional weight on you personally. And it will hamper your on-going relationship with your ex-spouse, particularly if you and your ex-spouse have children to raise together.6 On the other hand, a meaningful and complete apology has the power to keep your ex-spouse from being unreasonable in mediation and settlement discussions and using the courtroom to punish you. It will give you a healthier and redefined relationship for the future.
How to Apologize
The manner in which you apologize is crucial to the success of your apology. I am sure we each can recall countless examples of apologies that just did not work. For example, we have had our spouse, friend, or family member apologize half-heartedly. Other times, we have received an apology so vague it was not clear if the person was in fact apologizing. We have also been recipients of conditional apologies, in which the offender says something to the effect: “I’m sorry if I hurt you,” leaving us questioning whether the offender even believed she or he had actually hurt us or done something wrong. Other times, the offender does not even admit to his or her personal fault when apologizing. For example, the offender may say, “Mistakes were made,” rather than “I made a mistake.”7 We know from experience that these apologies do not work because they leave us wondering whether the offender really understood what was done wrong, whether the offender would never do the same wrong again, and whether the offender was really sorry.
A Successful Apology
If you plan on apologizing to your ex-spouse, and you are going to put the work and effort to apologize, you want to make sure that your apology is going to be successful. A successful apology can be divided into four parts:
1) The apology acknowledges the offense.
2) The apology communicates remorse and the related attitudes of forbearance, sincerity and honesty.
3) The apology provides an explanation; and
4) The apology grants reparations.8
1) Acknowledge the Offense
It is crucial that you acknowledge your offense to your ex-spouse in adequate detail. If you are apologizing for an affair, you need to identify the affair. For example, “Jennifer, I’m sorry that I cheated on you during our marriage.” You do not need to go into the details, such as the activities you did with him or her. Details will likely only cause more hurt. Let’s use another example, what if the offense was mismanaging community assets. Acknowledging the offense might look like this: “Sam, I’m sorry for mismanaging the Fidelity account and using those savings for my gambling habit.”
You also want to make sure you apologize to the people you hurt. You cannot just be sorry and not apologize to the individual you hurt. If you do not apologize to the person you hurt, the offended does not receive any benefit, and you will receive little back, especially the chance of forgiveness. It also makes no sense to apologize to the wrong person or only to one of the many individuals needing to hear the apology. You should take some time to identify who has been hurt by your wrong. It might not be only your ex-spouse; your children or another family member might also need an apology. If you do need to apologize to your children, make sure you are sensitive to your children’s age and present the information in an age appropriate manner.
In addition, your apology should acknowledge the impact these behaviors have had on the people you hurt and that your behavior violated the values you had established with them. Continuing our example of an affair, this part of the apology might sound like, “I know that my affair has hurt you and caused you not to trust me, or the sanctity of our marriage. I know my affair was a violation of our marriage vows.” Using our mismanager of the finances example, it might be stated as: “I know that mismanaging our savings has left us and our children with no savings and made it more difficult for us to pay for their schooling. I violated our agreement to save this money for our children.”9
2) Communicate Remorse, Sincerity, and Honesty
Another element to a successful apology is that the apology must be sincere and genuine. When you are giving your apology, be conscious of your body language and tone. Are you looking directly at your ex-spouse when you give this apology? Is your tone soft with feeling or terse and sarcastic? Are your arms folded or on your lap?
Your body language and tone will impact how your ex-spouse receives your apology. If you are not sincere, it is unlikely you will be relieved of the shame and guilt you are experiencing and your ex-spouse is unlikely to believe your apology. Take the time to practice your tone and the body language you will use to deliver your apology.
3) An Explanation
Without an explanation, apologies tend to be incomplete. Consider preparing an explanation for why you did what you did. Again, honesty and sincerity are crucial. Your explanation will put the offense into perspective for both you and your spouse. This helps with the healing process. It may help you give your ex-spouse the explanation he or she was looking for and help him or her stop continually reminding you of this wrong or using this to justify his or her harsh litigation tactics or desire for “more” than his or her fair share. An explanation helps bring closure to the wrong and allows you both to move on.
4) Grant Reparations
The final part of a successful apology is determining whether you need to offer your ex-spouse some form of reparations to restore the loss you caused. Be careful. You are not offering to restore a loss because you are guilty. This restoration is an attempt to demonstrate to your ex-spouse that you take the grievance you caused seriously. Consider reparations if you were at fault for misusing the family’s monies, damaging the personal effects of your ex-spouse, or taking valuable possessions or even family photos from the family residence before you and your ex-spouse had a fair chance to divide them. You might refund the lost money or allow your spouse to take back certain items you previously took. Reparations may not be available in situations like verbal abuse or communication failure. If your situation does call for reparations, plan ahead what reparations you will offer and present it as an offering to amend your wrong in a tangible way.
Where and When to Apologize
Now that you are familiar with the benefits and process, consider scenarios in which you can apologize to your spouse. A mediation setting is ideal for an apology. You can benefit from the more relaxed and cooperative setting in mediation than in the courtroom. Or you might use a more private setting such as a coffee shop. You might arrange this with your ex-spouse in advance. Your attorney may also have other ideas and be able to help facilitate this conversation with your ex-spouse’s attorney.
Take Home Message
Apologies have the power to provide you a healthy future as you move into a new chapter of your life. The process requires a degree of risk, but can relieve you of the guilt, pain, and suffering you have experienced and may continue to feel in the next days, weeks, and even years ahead. As you contemplate whether you will apologize and the manner and content of that apology, consider the degree of release and freedom an apology with your ex-spouse would bring. You have a right to experience that freedom again.