The Power of an Apology in Divorce

For divorcing and divorced spouses, a heartfelt apology can work wonders in beginning to heal relationships and in settling disputes.
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For divorcing and divorced spouses, a heartfelt apology can work wonders in beginning to heal relationships and in settling disputes. Insincere apologies, however, when used strategically to control or manipulate -- to try to win or get something, can wreak havoc on divorce negotiations and damage already fragile relationships.

In last week's New York Times article by Andrew Sorkin ("Too Many Sorry Excuses for Apology") an ' apology cease fire' was called for in order to curtail the overuse of insincere apologies that abound these days in both the business and political arenas. Mr. Sorkin distinguished between apology as manipulation (to gain good will, mitigate damage or for otherwise performance purposes) and apology as a means to incite productive debate and engagement or as an effective means to acknowledge and begin the work to right a wrong.

Between divorcing adults, an apology, the genuine article, can promote dialogue, decrease emotional distance and even help to re-establish trust. At its very best, it is a healing gesture and a symbol of willingness to take responsibility for misbehavior and to own up to being human. It can also communicate a desire to truly hear and understand (and empathize with) the emotional consequences of the wrong doing that have been brought upon the injured spouse.

Many wounded clients have expressed to me their wish to go into a court of law and 'tell' their story to the judge. This desire may be rooted in the wish to have the pain and suffering they have experienced and their sense that an injustice has been committed upon them, formally acknowledged. While clearly, this is not the purpose of our court system, many clients who ask for their day in court or to 'have the judge decide' may be feeling they have been terribly mistreated and are looking to have this fact (as well as their pain) validated. This need to have wrong doing acknowledged can be so great that it makes even the possibility of engaging in productive deliberations impossible.

I have often thought about, and occasionally witnessed, the positive impacts of a genuine apology from the divorcing 'wrong doer' (or from both spouses) regarding their role(s) in the failure of the marriage. During a recent divorce mediation that seemed to be going nowhere, a husband spontaneously offered up an apology that included several important components: An acknowledgement of the wrong doing, a validation of the pain and suffering the misbehavior had caused (to his wife and children) and a promise to make things right. This final point even included an action plan of steps he was willing to take, i.e. reimbursing the marital estate, talking with and apologizing to their friends and to their children (in an age appropriate way), etc.

Once this issue was acknowledged and 'out there,' the deliberations took a very positive turn. It seemed that the heavy burden of the husband's unspoken shame and guilt regarding his actions as well as the wife's deep disappointment and hurt caused by these, had been absorbing so much energy for each of them that up until this point, openly discussing issues, resolving conflict and making decisions demanded energy that simply was not available. Each spouse had been working hard to keep powerful emotions (ie-shame and guilt on the husband's part, hurt and abandonment for the wife) at bay. Once the apology was made and these feeling were acknowledged, more energy was available to each client, bringing about an increased capacity to move forward and engage in effective deliberations and decision making. Our work together in this mediation was completed well ahead of each of our expectations.

I would like to propose a call for increased (genuine) apologies for divorcing spouses. There can be no harm as far as I can see, in heartfelt acknowledgement and responsibility taking with regard to the pain and disappointment brought about by a failed marriage. An "I am sorry for my contributions to the ending of our marriage and I can see how painful this is for you and for our children" can help to open up dialogue and deliberations that might otherwise stall in the face of so much unacknowledged hurt, anger, and sadness. During and after a divorce, a genuine apology can be a healthy step forward towards healing for everyone involved.

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