“We could spend our while lives waiting for someone to apologize or take responsibility for how they hurt us before we decide to let go. But the problem with that scenario is, we’ve made someone else in charge of how and when we heal. If we truly want to break a cycle and heal, we have to forget about what the other person is or is not doing and focus entirely on our own process.” - Unknown
Apologies & Amends Letters: are they really necessary?
Yes. Yes they are.
That being said ... they are oftentimes just one part of the reconciliation process.
Definition: APOLOGY - Something that you say or write in order to tell someone that you are sorry you have hurt them or caused trouble for them.
One of the top five topics discussed in the world of estrangement is apologies. Both estranged parents and estranged adult children want them although for very different reasons. Parents want an apology from their estranged child for the hurt and pain they are experiencing by being estranged. Adult children want an apology from their parent(s) for the hurt and pain they experienced in childhood.
Demanding an apology rarely leads to our desired result. Think about it. If a spouse, sibling, boss/coworker, etc. were to demand an apology from you, how would you feel about that? Would you be inclined to give one? Or would you tell them to go take a flying leap or dig your heels in and refuse? And let me ask you this. Do you believe IF an apology did come, it would be sincere and authentic? Or perhaps it would be forced and come from a place of fear? I don't know about you, but I only want a sincere and authentic apology - one that comes from the heart.
Oftentimes it's not WHAT to apologize for but rather HOW to work an apology. Words are powerful and those chosen along with their delivery is what can "make or break" an apology. This was a massive learning curve for me - a lesson I learned in therapy. But boy once I got it ... it changed everything. It changed every single relationship I have - personally and professionally.
What should I apologize for?
See if you are able to tell the difference between the following two apology statements:
"I am sorry I divorced your father and then had to move you to a new home and school district with people you did not know."
"I'm sorry that my divorce from your father caused you hurt and pain. Not just from losing your father in your daily life but also for the pain you felt from having to leave your friends and start over at a new school. That had to of been a scary time for you. I am sorry that I did not recognize that and was not there for you in the way you needed me to be there."
Definition: AMENDS - Something done or given by a person to make up for a loss or injury that he or she has caused.
There is an art to writing an amends letter. Dr. Joshua Coleman suggests writing one amends letter and if no response is received by week six, write a follow up letter. From there, if there is still no response, he suggests not making another attempt at contact for a year.
Below are sample letters from Dr. Coleman - one written in a less than ideal way, one written in a good way.
I'm sorry that you think I wasn't a good mother. I really tried to be the best one that I could and given what I grew up with, always felt like I did a pretty good job. It was very hard raising you as a single mother with very little money and no support from your father. I guess I should have tried harder. I'm not saying that I was always the most patient person in the world, but I did try and I did love you and hopefully that counts for something.
#1 - "I'm sorry that you think I wasn't a good mother."
PROBLEM: Saying "that you think I wasn't a good mother" sounds defensive. We all let our children down in one way or another. It's better to say, "I'm sorry for the ways that I wasn't a good mother" or "I'm sorry for the pain that I have caused you."
#2 - "I really tried to be the best one that I could."
PROBLEM: It's true, but again, the goal of the letter is to help your children believe that your goal isn't to defent yourself but to see the world from their perspective. Remember that what you tell yourself is different from what you tell your child. You tell yourself that you tried to be the best parent that you could. You tell your child that you're sorry for the ways that you weren't.
#3 - "I always felt like I did a pretty good job."
PROBLEM: For the purposes of the letter this isn't relevant. The goal of the letter isn't self-expression per se; it's to communicate a willingness and desire to see things from your child's perspective. Right or wrong, they are currently fixated on the ways that they believe that you didn't do a good job; so defending yourself will be counterproductive.
#4 - It was very hard raising you as a single mother with very little money and no support from your father."
PROBLEM: The most problematic part of this is the criticism of the father. Again, while the parent is stating a real fact, it tempts the child to defend the other parent and distracts him or her from your positive intention.
#5 - I did try and I did love you and hopefully that counts for something."
PROBLEM: Saying that it "hopefully counts for something" sounds critical, as though the child has no right to the perspective that she has. Therefore, it will make her feel defensive.
I'm so sorry for the ways that I let you down as a parent. I know that I was harsh in many ways and that that was hurtful to you. I could understand why that might make it harder to spend time with me. It is true that I was preoccupied in many ways when you were young and that it prevented me from being as involved with you as would have been good for you. I'm glad that you let me know how you feel about that and I hope there are ways that I can make it up to you in the future.
#1 - "I'm sorry for the ways that I let you down as a parent."
STRENGTH: The mother doesn't try to sugarcoat it; instead she goes straight to the heart of the complaint. Her child is saying the mother let her down as a parent and the mother is saying she's sorry that she did.
#2 - "I know that I was harsh in many ways."
STRENGTH: Admits to being harsh. Again, makes it clear that she's not there to prove the child wrong or overly sensitive. She's straightforwardly admitting to her character flaws.
#3 - "and that was hurtful to you"
STRENGTH: Addresses how the mistake or flaw resulted in the child feeling hurt.
#4 - "I could understand why that might make it harder to spend time with me."
STRENGTH: Empathizes with the child's decision to be distant. Shows strength that she's willing to both admit her mistakes as a parent and respect the child's choice however painful it is to the mother.
#5 - "I'm glad that you let me know how you feel."
STRENGTH: The mother's willingness to put the daughter's criticisms in the perspective of health rather than selfishness or hurtfulness is an act of selfless love on the part of the mother that is rarely missed by adult children, even when they don't verbally acknowledge it.
If the reason for estrangement is not known:
I hope you are well. I'm writing to see if it's possible to open up a dialogue with you. I know that you would not have cut off contact with me unless it was the healthiest thing for you to do. That being said, I don't completely understand and would like to. Would you feel open to writing, calling or telling me more about your thoughts or feelings that make you feel like this is the healthiest thing for you? I promise to read or listen purely from the perspective of learning and not in any way to defend myself. And if you'd rather have that discussion with a therapist or mediator, I'm more than happy to do that as well.
The follow up letter if no response to the original amends letter:
Just following up to see if you've had a chance to read my letter. I'm sure I left out some details that would have been good to address but just wanted to try to get the conversation started. Let me know if you have any thoughts or reactions, positive or negative.