An Apology Without Change Is Manipulation

man apologizing to girlfriend

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When someone hurts us, physically or emotionally, we crave an apology. An apology rarely if ever fixes the problem, of course, but it does help. After all, an apology shows a willingness to change for the better.

Or does it?

The problem with apologies is that abusers know how much their victims want to hear them. To keep their victims nearby, then, they’ll make apologies left and right without taking any real actions to improve themselves or make amends.

These are not real apologies—they are manipulation tactics. Any counselor, therapist, or psychiatrist in the world will attest that an apology without change is manipulation.

How can you tell the difference, though? What differentiates real apologies made by someone struggling to change from manipulative apologies made by an abuser?

If you need help determining whether you’ve been given a real apology or if you’re just being manipulated, here are some red flags to watch for.

Why an Apology Without Change Is Manipulation

“An apology without change is just manipulation.”

It’s a pithy statement perfect for window decals and bumper stickers, but that doesn’t make it any less true. It also doesn’t make the phrase less scientifically correct.

For at least the past two decades, psychological professionals have understood that a sincere apology contains 4 distinct actions:

  1. Admission of a harmful action or behavior
  2. Statement of remorse regarding the action or behavior
  3. Realized promise to avoid (or attempt to avoid) that action or behavior in the future
  4. Offer to make amends

It’s important to note the language in that third point. It cannot be a blanket or empty promise—it must be a realized promise.

Types of Insincere and/or Manipulative Apologies

Not all insincere apologies are purposely manipulative. Often, they aren’t even purposely insincere.

apology without change is manipulation image of man and woman trying to talk

That doesn’t make them acceptable, though, nor does it make a continued pattern of giving such apologies less toxic. It can, however, make it more difficult to determine when an apology is real and when it’s a manipulation. Feeling true remorse isn’t a fail-safe identifier of a sincere apology.

For this reason, it’s important to learn to differentiate the different rationales behind insincere and/or manipulative apologies.

Guilty Conscience

What the apology really means: “I feel bad, and apologizing will make me feel better. It isn’t about making you feel better—this is about me.”

Whether we mean to or not, almost all of us are guilty of apologizing to appease ourselves rather than the people we hurt.

This doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person or a secret narcissist. It’s a common self-defense method to protect our own emotions and vulnerability. By verbally admitting our guilt, we release some of that burden and ease our own consciences.

We are also aware that, on some level, just offering an apology is often enough to improve how people perceive us. In this 2006 article from the Journal of College and Character, author Hershey H. Friedman notes that “an apology causes the aggrieved party to have more empathy for the offending party.” In other words, the act of apologizing itself can be enough to make the person we’ve hurt feel bad for us instead.

The Difference between Guilt and Shame

Friedman’s article goes on to explain that we desire this acknowledgment to assuage our own negative feelings. When we do something that we know has caused another being pain, most people feel one of two emotions: guilt or shame.

Guilt stems from the knowledge that we have displayed “bad” behavior. We have committed some negative action, and one of the consequences of that action is a deep discomfort and desire to make amends.

apology without change is manipulation causing guilt and shame
Guilt and shame are not the same but may feed into each other causing negative emotions to spiral.

Shame is a deeper emotion that stems from poor self-esteem. Instead of labeling only the action or behavior as negative, people who feel shame internalize their discomfort and label their entire identity as negative. In other words, they think, “I’m a bad person,” not, “I did a bad thing.”

Feeling either of these emotions is like poison to a chronic manipulator. Whether their discomfort stems from guilt over an action or shame over their own identities, manipulators find the sensation even more unwelcome than the average human. That’s because shame and guilt serve as reminders that we have made a mistake by doing something wrong.

Manipulators cannot handle that realization, and they will do everything in their power to remove themselves from it. This means that they will gaslight their victims into thinking that the offense never happened and apologize without any true remorse.

Argument Ender

What the apology really means: “I’m tired of arguing, so I’m going to tell you whatever you want to hear.”

This type of apology is given by manipulators and victims alike. At certain points, a situation or relationship can become so uncomfortable that the participants will do or say anything to put an end to it.

That’s where this apology comes into play. It doesn’t stem from shame, guilt, or any real sense of remorse. It stems from a desire to put an end to a confrontation, passive-aggressive behavior, and/or uncomfortable silence.

The most unfortunate trait of this type of apology is that it often comes across as more sincere than other types of manipulative apologies. What may appear to be a heartfelt desire to put an end to a fight may actually be exhaustion and/or apathy.

While it is not recommended to “test” anyone with whom you’re in a relationship (romantic, platonic, familial, or otherwise), a good way to weed out this type of apology is to say that you aren’t done talking. If the other person walks away or tunes you out, chances are that they only apologized to end the argument. If they agree to listen, especially if they’re clearly tired or annoyed, the apology was more likely to be sincere.

man and woman need couples counseling in pa

Leading the Witness

What the apology really means: “By apologizing to you first, I expect you to apologize to me next. After all, it’s not really my fault—you’re to blame, too.”

In court, the term “leading the witness” refers to a manipulation tactic wherein an attorney directs the witness on the stand to make a specific statement. It’s basically a fancy way of saying “putting words in someone’s mouth.”

For example, during a murder trial, an attorney may show the witness a picture of the murder weapon while asking, “The Defendant owns a weapon just like this, don’t they?” If the witness says “yes”, then they have made a vital correlation between the Defendant and the crime. If the witness says “no”, even if they call attention to the nature of the question, then they are assumed to be lying.

That’s exactly how this type of manipulative apology works.

Like the Argument Ender rationale, apologies in this category don’t stem from genuine remorse. Rather, they come from the belief that making an apology will force the other person to apologize, too. After all, won’t they seem like a jerk if you apologize and they don’t?

This is, of course, a fallacy. While the phrase “it takes two to tango” (i.e., no one person is responsible for a negative situation) is correct for many conflicts, it isn’t correct for all of them. A victim of abuse, physical or verbal, is not in any way responsible for the actions of their abuser.

Testing Boundaries

What the apology really means: “If you accept this apology, then it means I can do the thing that hurt or bothered you again without consequence.”

When children begin to experience autonomy, one of the first things they do is test their boundaries. “Mom doesn’t mind that I drew on this paper, so let’s see if I can draw on the wall.” “Dad put me in time out when I pulled the dog’s tail, will he put me in time out if I do it again?”

These are the types of activities that toddlers engage in. They aren’t evil, or narcissistic, or sociopathic. They’re just learning which behaviors are acceptable and which ones are not.

At best, that’s the mentality behind this kind of apology, too. No matter how old or otherwise mature the person offering this type of apology is, it stems from a very childish perspective.

Instead of viewing an accepted apology as a vehicle for forgiveness and personal growth, they see it as carte blanche approval to commit the harmful action again. If they were really mad, they wouldn’t have forgiven me, so that means it’s okay to do this thing again.

In this scenario, the person who offers the apology as a means of testing boundaries probably isn’t doing it intentionally. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. Purposely manipulative people will employ the same technique to see just how far they can push someone.

Ultimate Control

What the apology really means: “I know that my apology will make you feel sorry enough for me or positive enough about our relationship to stay.”

This is what most people envision when they think about manipulative apologies. These are the sorries and promises that intentional abusers and manipulators make to ensure that their victims stay put.

In some cases, there is an additional intention behind this sort of apology. Namely, the person giving the apology is hoping to gaslight their victim.

The term “gaslight” gets thrown around quite often nowadays, so it is important to define what it actually means. Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse in which the abuser attempts to convince their victim that their perception of reality is skewed. Examples of gaslighting can range from the innocent and noncommital, “It wasn’t that bad!” to the explicit, “You’re just lying, and you know it!”

image of psychological manipulation for pa online relationship therapy
Gaslighting is to manipulate someone by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.

When abusers apologize with the goal of gaining ultimate control of their victim, gaslighting is often the method they use. By apologizing, they place doubt in their victims’ minds. “They apologized to me, so they can’t be as terrible as I remember them being.”

The moment that doubt takes root, abusers know that their victims are susceptible to further abuse. They will immediately counteract any violence or negativity with a smile or a compliment or a gift. Such actions keep their victims guessing about who the abuser really is and whether or not they’re abusive in the first place.

Apologies humanize people, and abusers know that. They bank on it. If you notice that someone makes a habit of apologizing to calm you down or deflect your anger, take it as a warning sign that they’re using that apology to gain ultimate control over you.

The Last Resort

What the apology really means: “I don’t feel bad about what I did or said. I feel bad about the possibility that you might leave and/or never forgive me.”

Finally, manipulators may rely on an apology as a last resort for keeping their victim from leaving.

This last resort apology comes in two primary forms. The first is related to an apology with the goal of ultimate control. The manipulator knows that their victim will leave and/or have a negative opinion of them unless they apologize, so they do just that.

The second form is unintentional but no less manipulative for it. In this scenario, the manipulator issues a desperate apology borne from fear. This manipulator isn’t actively trying to gain control of their victim, they’re just doing whatever it takes to make them stay.

woman begging spouse to stay before couples counseling

The first type of last resort apology tends to come from master manipulators, narcissists, and sociopaths. It is completely intentional, and the person making such an apology knows exactly what they’re doing and why. The second type of last resort apology stems from poor self-esteem, codependency, and a lack of proper boundaries.

Makin Wellness

At the end of the day, an apology is just an apology. “I’m sorry,” is just a string of words. No matter how close you are with someone or good you think that person is, an apology without change is manipulation.

That doesn’t have to mean that you should remove that person from your life, though, nor does it mean that your relationship is unsalvageable. As we’ve demonstrated here, plenty of people unintentionally offer insincere apologies because of their own doubts and issues.

That’s why Makin Wellness of Pittsburgh here to help. Whether you’re dealing with addiction, grief, emotional instability, or relationship breakdowns, Makin Wellness has an expert therapist on staff to help you overcome. To speak to a care provider or schedule your first appointment, contact us through our self-service form.

Sara Makin MSEd, LPC, NCC

Sara Makin MSEd, LPC, NCC

All articles are written in conjunction with the Makin Wellness Research Team.

This Post Has 13 Comments

  1. Shelley

    Thank you for this article.. I am currently stuck in this circle of empty apologizing.. He even says he knows what is needed but never acts … Then says sorry …
    I’m stuck

    1. Sara Makin

      Hi Shelley, Thank you for your comment. It sounds like the relationship could benefit from some new communication skills and techniques for change. It’s can be frustrating when change does not occur after the apology is given. Our office would be happy to help with that. Feel free to reach out to us at intake@makinwellness.com or 1-833-274-HEAL.

  2. April Davis

    What about someone demanding you to accept their apology and if you don’t they punish you.

    1. Makin Wellness

      Thank you for your reaching out, April. This sounds like a rather serious form of control. It can be hard to gain back a healthy level on your own. We have experienced professionals who work with individuals just like you. You are not alone. Give us a call at 833-274-4325 and we can help.

      1. Kc

        How do I explain to my husband why saying “I’m sorry I don’t live up to your expectations” or “I’m sorry I’m such an @hole” isn’t an actual apology? Because he seems to think it is and he gets upset when I basically ignore the so called apology or suggestion that, that’s not really an apology or if things have already tested my patience, I tell him to grow up. (I know that one doesn’t help)
        This tends to happen when I ask him to do something differently like throw the empty poptart box in the trash, not on the kitchen table (pick up after himself) or not to take his frustration out on me when he has a bad day. Something dumb like that. I know… I have really high expectations (eyeroll)
        Or telling me he’s not yelling when I tell him not yell at me, especially when he’s upset about something that has nothing to do with me.

        1. Makin Wellness

          Hi, thank you for your response. Sometimes significant others create an apology that contains things that they think the other person wants to hear. While this may seem condescending to you, he may feel it is appropriate. While these responses can trigger anger, it is helpful to try to breathe and respond to their apology with questions about why they feel that way. We can help you come up with better forms of communication and find the answers you are looking for. Give us a call at 833-274-HEAL or join us at our next Facebook Live Q&A. We hope to hear from you and wish you the best.

  3. fifi

    What if youre truly apologetic
    but you say somethings which give off a bad aura? but you dont mean it, at all

    i fear thats the reason my life is like this

  4. Nay

    Hi, Shelley.
    I have been going through the same thing….for 12 years. It began over different things. But over the past two years, it has been over the same thing…and has gone from once every 6 months to every 2-3 days. It has destroyed me. I’m pretty sure he’s a narcissist…and I KNOW he gaslights me. I went from a confident, joyful, outgoing person who loved life and had lots of friends….to a recluse who has no self esteem, and who is being hurt by someone who never deserved me to start with….and by that, I mean….he has NEVER contributed a dime to the relationship despite promises to pitch in;hasbinvaded my privacy, been violent, horri ly verbally abusive, and does unspeakably cruel things….then disappears, and resurfaces with apologies….and usually a request for money and then repeats the behavior. He has cost me jobs, family….my joy. These days, I literally have pain in my chest daily from the hurt. It’s been like that for the past 5 years now….and each time he goes silent, I decide I must not let him back to hurt me more. But I’m so devastated and isolated now that when he does appear with a vague, insincere apology that I KNOW isn’t real, I’m so desperste to not feel the heartache, that I end up choosing to ‘pretend’ it’s sincere….just for those few moments of relief. It reminds me of my childhood: choosing to believe my alcoholic dad daily, when he’d promise each morning for years on end, that he wouldn’t come home drunk and violent again….knowing deep inside he would. Believing let me get through the day. He was drunk every single night.
    Anyway….point being, I’m in another “silent treatment”….what he did this time is the worst yet (in terms of blatant cruelty-)….and despite feeling gutted, I REALLY want to keep him out when he inevitably shows up again. I just hope the lure of the momentary relief from the sadness doesn’t win this time. Logically, I’m aware of exactly what’s up. I’m no fool. But I recognize I’m stuck, totally stripped of everything by this man, and am running on fumes for self motivation and perseverance.
    Worst of all, when I met him 12 yrs ago, his stepmom was just like me now: housebound, empty, depressed….his dad was a total monster to both of them (but of course, my partner seemed different-)…she warned me to get out….that the men in this family were all monsters, and Ibwould end up like her – basically waiting to die in order to be rid of the pain. I felt sorry for her, but thought it would never happen to me. The son (my partner) was so charming! 12 yrs later, I’m a shell of my former self. Unrecognizable to myself. Alone. Hurting. Desperately sad and alone, and feeling worthless. (And clearly, sleepless, as I’m writing this at 3AM!)

    1. Summa

      I hope you managed to stay strong. Praying for you.

  5. Jennifer

    I think I might have borderline personality disorder. I did some pretty terrible things to my 76 year old Aunt in the hopes she wouldn’t leave me. She did- she blocked my email and phone. I apologized as sincerely as I could many times. I really feel awful about lying to her and manipulating her emotions. I love her and fear she might be go e from my life forever. I keep reaching out to her by opening new email accounts but she doesn’t respond to my messages. Is there anything else I can do? I am having a hard time trying to respect her wishes not to talk to me. I really wish I could turn back time. It is awful to lose someone you truly care about and to have to admit my behaviors are what caused her to permanently cut me off. Should I keep apologizing? What if she never talks to me again? I’m heartbroken.

    1. Makinwellness

      Hi Jennifer. Processing the past and dealing with our life choices can be a difficult thing to deal with. We would love to talk to you more about what you’re walking through, you’re always welcome to schedule an introductory call with one of our team members. We’re here to help.

  6. Simone

    I feel stuck in this relationship staying with someone who doesn’t change at all or make anything better just talks about it. I am 5 weeks pregnant and i have a 1 yr old daughter . I’ve been trying hard to stay and make this work but i am tired of the constant hurt. I never get dealt the same hand i give him. I want to leave in fact i’m always letting him know i want to leave to see if he will change but see i’m here writing this so no no changes at all just empty statements and promises.

    1. Makinwellness

      Hi Simone. We are sorry that you are struggling with these things in your relationship. Feel free to schedule an appointment with one our team members if you feel like you need help.

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