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:
- Admission of a harmful action or behavior
- Statement of remorse regarding the action or behavior
- Realized promise to avoid (or attempt to avoid) that action or behavior in the future
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.