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Sham Apologies and How They Erode Trust

4 steps to change those behaviors, benefitting both your partner and yourself.

RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

What small child in the world has not heard the words, “Say you’re sorry.” It doesn’t matter if that child truly feels sadness or remorse from the deed in question, as long as he or she utters the required words.

There is, of course, the implication that a lesson has been learned and the behavior won’t happen again, but every parent knows that is not likely to happen. The required ritual has been performed, but it will not likely change the future.

Unfortunately, adulthood too often does not alter that childhood pattern. In adult relationships, many partners use the same sham apologies they learned in childhood to get out of an uncomfortable situation, without any intent to change that behavior.

In committed relationships, this pattern will ultimately damage the partnership as the scammed partner’s trust erodes over time. The cost is, of course, higher when the behaviors are more significant. For example, continuously being late may be seen by one partner as just a quirk of his or her personality, but it may feel outrageously inconsiderate to the other. Or, not responding quickly to an important text message—those differences can seriously damage the sender’s sense of importance. “I’m so sorry. I just couldn’t get out of what I was doing,” can only be uttered so many times before it becomes meaningless.

The partner who is repeatedly faced with these meaningless apology/promises may stay blind for a period of time, but will eventually see those apologies as manipulative strategies used by their partners to get out of trouble in the moment.

Sometimes the partner making the apology/promise to change actually believes that he or she will not do the damaging behavior again, but those good intentions in the moment too often disappear when temptations arise. The apologies in the moment are sincere, but they become useless when the destructive patterns reemerge.

If you have become aware that your behaviors have become serious enough to threaten the loss of the relationship, you’ll first need to see these patterns from a different perspective. Try to see him or her as not the victim of your charades but more as the catalyst who identified your behavior, giving you the opportunity to correct it in a permanent way. You now want to change those behaviors to regain your own self-respect. Your partner may benefit from the change, but it is you who will gain the most in the long run.

Following are the four steps you’ll need to take:

Step 1: Challenging Your Own Hypocrisies

Ask yourself this when you make an apology: Do you really intend to change that behavior in the future or are just looking to get out of trouble in the moment? You may not have had bad intentions when you did something that caused your partner to be upset, but perhaps you don’t actually regret the actions themselves. Had they not come to light or upset him or her, you’d be glad to try a sham apology to get through the moment.

If you continue behaving as you want to, no matter if it distresses your partner in the moment, you will eventually be unable to convince him or her that your apology means anything. Excuses for the same repeated hurtful behaviors are eventually experienced as self-serving lies.

Step 2: Being Honest With Your Partner

If you are not being honest when you apologize and know it, you need to tell your partner that the apology you’re offering is just a strategic move to alleviate the tension in the moment and that you will most likely do that behavior again. You are trying to regain trust by sharing your true motives, even if your partner does not like the truth. At least he or she will not feel crazy anymore.

Tell your partner if you are not in agreement that what you did was wrong and that you had no intent to cause a problem. Listen to why he or she doesn’t agree and how important it is. Make sure you are not living by a double standard (i.e., If your partner did the same thing, would you be OK with it?).

This step will hopefully lead to separating out what your partner is willing to tolerate and what you need to change to hold on to the relationship.

Step 3: Getting Your Partner to Trust You in the Future

When you truly feel you’ve done something to hurt/anger/disappoint your partner, and you agree it wasn’t right, what do you need to do when you are confronted to gain back trust? Can you risk being exposed and the possible consequences? What would be the alternative to apologizing if you are truly sad you’ve caused distress but do not intend to change your behavior?

Tell your partner that you know and understand the legitimacy of his or her reaction to your behavior, but what you believe you can and will change will put you on trial, and it is necessary to accept that potential humiliation. At least your partner will be able to count on your word.

Step 4: Changing What You Know You Must

Apologies between intimate partners, whether sham or real, are often vulnerable to temptations over time. Most people tell me that, most of the time, they don’t remember their promise, don’t feel it is important anymore, or are willing to risk what they want to do and just pretend again they won’t repeat the behavior. But, questioned more deeply, they know when a promise is real and they want to know how to keep that promise before making an apology for breaking it.

The broken promises with their accompanying sham apologies, then, is no longer an issue between you and your partner. It is between you and your commitment to who you want to be as a person, and where to gain the guidance and witnessing for that change to happen. For many, it is renewing your promise to a religious God or to a trusted mentor. But it can be simply comparing the person you have been to the one you want to become. For that to happen, you must recommit to your own values that you have ignored.

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