Relationships are complicated. If you think quantum mechanics is complex, wait till you get into a relationship. When two minds collide and enter into a relationship, all sorts of chain reactions get triggered.
It’s not just two minds colliding; it’s a collision of intentions, perceptions, misperceptions, assumptions, interpretations, misinterpretations, and behaviors. A mish-mash of these is a recipe for conflict. No wonder conflicts in relationships are common.
In relationships, a conflict usually arises when one party hurts another. The victim feels violated and demands an apology. If the transgressor apologizes sincerely, the relationship is repaired.
But, as you’ll learn by the time you’re done with this article, things aren’t always that simple.
Selfishness trumps selflessness
Let’s take a step back and think about what apologies are for. Humans, being social species, enter into all kinds of relationships. Friendships, business partnerships, marriages, and whatnot. Getting into relationships and contributing to them is a very mammalian thing.
Like humans, most mammals live in social groups to survive and thrive. They can’t make it on their own. Empathy, selflessness, altruism, and morality help mammals live in a cohesive group.
But, a more ancient, reptilian part of our brain is more selfish. It’s a more deeply ingrained part of us than altruism. All it cares about is survival, even if at the expense of others. This stronger, more ancient part of our wiring usually wins when it comes head-to-head with our mammalian altruism.
This is how you get a world full of greed, corruption, scams, theft, and embezzlement. This is why society has to impose morality, to awaken the relatively weaker part of our psyche, via traditions and laws.
While people are naturally both selfish and selfless, they’re more selfish than altruistic. This is evidenced by the fact that people act immorally despite being taught morality. And despite never having been taught evil, it comes naturally to many people.
The purpose of apologies
Selfishness is at the root of almost all human conflict.
A relationship is essentially an agreement between two humans to be altruistic towards each other. A relationship, by definition, requires that the parties involved be willing to forsake their selfishness for selflessness.
“I scratch your back, and you scratch mine.”
A relationship, despite requiring selflessness, is ultimately selfish too. I mean, would you be willing to scratch someone’s back if they didn’t scratch yours?
Paradoxical as it may seem, a relationship is a way to meet our selfish needs via some degree of selflessness.
When that selflessness is missing, the contract gets breached. The violator of the agreement is being selfish. They’re getting but not giving. They’re hurting or incurring costs on the other party in the pursuit of their selfish ends.
The other party- the victim- demands an apology.
An apology is designed to repair a relationship. If they want to continue the relationship, the transgressor has to admit their fault and promise not to repeat their selfish (hurtful) behavior.
It comes down to math
Relationships thrive on a balance between give-and-take. When you act selfishly and hurt your partner, you incur some cost on them. They can’t continue the relationship if it continues to be costly for them. No one likes to lose.
So, you have to somehow pay for your transgressions to re-balance the relationship. You can do that by apologizing and promising not to repeat that behavior. It may be enough, but sometimes you may have to do more, like taking them on a date or buying them flowers.
Research shows that apologies are perceived to be sincere when they are costly.1
We have laws in society to punish selfish transgressors because it appeals to our sense of justice. The more selfish or hurtful a crime, the harsher the punishment.
Signs of a genuine apology
The key ingredients of a sincere apology include:
- Admitting your mistake
- Promising not to repeat the mistake
- Paying the price
A sure sign of a sincere apology is when the transgressor asks, “What can I do to make it up to you?”
It shows they’re not only admitting their transgression but also willing to repair the damage caused so the relationship can go back to where it was.
What is a manipulative apology?
An apology that lacks the ingredients of a sincere apology is a fake apology. Not all fake apologies are manipulative, though. A person could be faking an apology without being manipulative.
Manipulative apologies are a subset of fake apologies- the worst type of fake apologies.
Also, there’s no such thing as unconscious manipulation. Manipulation has to be intentional, or it isn’t manipulation.
With that out of the way, let’s look at some common examples of manipulative apologies:
1. Controlling apology
A controlling apology is apologizing not because they’re sorry but because they know what you want to hear. The intention here is not an admission of wrongdoing or promising to change but getting rid of a temporary inconvenience in their life.
The goal is to calm you down by giving you what you want. They know the next time they repeat the same mistake, all they’ll have to do to get away with it is apologize.2
2. Blame-shifting apology
Accepting responsibility for your mistake is a crucial ingredient of a sincere apology. A blame-shifting apology shifts the blame for the error to a third party or situation.
For example, instead of accepting responsibility and saying, “I’m sorry I offended you”, people blame-shift by saying something like:
“I’m sorry it offended you.” (“My action offended you, not me.”)
“I’m sorry you got offended.” (“You shouldn’t have been offended.”)
“I’m sorry if I offended you.” (“I’m unwilling to accept that you got offended.”)
You have to be careful with these. They may not always reflect manipulative apologies. People don’t always utter these phrases to blame-shift but to assign blame where it’s due.
They utter them when they didn’t intend to offend you or when they just don’t understand how they offended you.
In such cases, you can’t expect them to apologize because their mistake was unintentional. Some say impact matters more than intention, but this isn’t true. Intention is everything.
If you listen to each other constructively, trying to understand where the other person is coming from, the situation can resolve itself. If you realize there was a misunderstanding and they didn’t intend to hurt you, you’re more likely to forgive.
This is corroborated by studies showing that apologies after ambiguously intentional offenses decrease punishment, whereas clearly, willful violations increase punishment.3
The thing is: ambiguously intentional offenses open the door for manipulation. If the intention is ambiguous, they can claim they didn’t intend to hurt you when, in fact, they did.
People who’re offended often demand clear-cut apologies stripped off of any excuses. They should, but only when the offense is intentional. Not all excuses are baseless.
“I’m sorry I said that. I was in a bad mood that day.”
This could be a manipulative, blame-shifting apology if they knew they would hurt you with their words.
But it’s also possible they’re telling the truth.
Our moods, emotions, habits, and life experiences impact how we behave. Thinking they shouldn’t is naive.
Again, you need to focus on intent. Because intent is so hard to figure out, this is why it’s such a tricky topic.
3. Gaslighting apology
Whether or not you intentionally hurt the other person, you must acknowledge their feelings were hurt. If you deny or minimize their feelings, you’re gaslighting them.
After you’ve validated their feelings, the next step would be to explore why they were hurt.
Did you hurt them intentionally?
An apology is in order.
Did they misperceive or misinterpret something?
You don’t need to apologize. Try to clarify things.
4. Confrontation-avoiding apology
This type of manipulative apology has the goal of ending the argument. The argument-ender says “I’m sorry” to avoid dealing with the issue, not because they’re remorseful.
It never works because you can always sense they’re not really sorry but are trying to get away.
5. Blame-reversal apology
These manipulative apologies are a type of blame-shift apologies that blame the victim. Instead of taking responsibility for what they did, they make the entire thing your fault and demand an apology from you.
They twist the whole thing to make it seem like your fault, say something like:
“I’m sorry, but you did X. That made me do Y.”
Again, they may be telling the truth. Human behavior is often a bunch of reactions influenced by various things. When you get offended, it isn’t always the case that your offender had an explicit motive to offend you.
But because you’re hurting, you want to believe that. We care more about repairing our relationships than the truth.
It’s possible that their intentional or unintentional hurting of you was triggered by something you did to hurt them, intentionally or unintentionally.
The only way out of this mess is open and empathic communication.
6. Fearful apologies
They apologize out of the fear of losing you, saying things like:
“I don’t know what I did, but I’m sorry.”
Of course, when you’re at the receiving end of that apology, it can be infuriating. Like other fake apologies, they’re apologizing but not apologizing. It’s a non-apology apology.
Note that this is only a manipulative apology if they know full well they hurt you and are scared of your anger, which they’re trying to dissipate.
It’s not a manipulative apology if they genuinely don’t understand how they hurt you. We expect people to understand how they hurt us, and we expect them to apologize. We give little consideration to the possibility that they probably genuinely don’t understand how they hurt us.
In such cases, it’s wise to be empathetic and explain to them how what they did hurt you. Yes, sometimes you got to teach them this stuff. Expecting others always to understand you is unempathetic.
It’s challenging to detect manipulative apologies. Before you accuse someone of apologizing manipulatively, annoying them, and then having to come up with your own manipulative apology, communicate.
Try to understand where the other person is coming from. Avoid assuming things and then acting on those assumptions. No, scratch that. You can’t really avoid assuming things. It’s going to happen. What you can do is avoid taking action on them.
Assumptions without substantial evidence are just that- assumptions. Always have communication as your go-to tool for resolving any conflict.
Intent only exists in your head. You know when you’re trying to hurt someone and when you’re not. It’s essential to be honest about your intentions if you want healthy relationships.
When you’re about to hurt someone, there’s always this ‘knowing’ that you feel. You know there’s a chance of hurting them, yet you do it anyway. Be it out of habit, selfishness, lack of self-control, or revenge.
When you experience that ‘knowing’, pause and reflect on whether what you’re about to do is the right thing to do.
Human conflicts aren’t always as simple as the abuser-victim dynamic. Often, both parties contribute to the dance. It takes two to tango. It takes two to un-tango, too. There’s hardly anything that communication can’t solve.
- Ohtsubo, Y., & Watanabe, E. (2008). Do sincere apologies need to be costly. Test of a costly signaling model of apology.
- Luchies, L. B., Finkel, E. J., McNulty, J. K., & Kumashiro, M. (2010). The doormat effect: when forgiving erodes self-respect and self-concept clarity. Journal of personality and social psychology, 98(5), 734.
- Fischbacher, U., & Utikal, V. (2013). On the acceptance of apologies. Games and Economic Behavior, 82, 592-608.
Hi, I’m Hanan Parvez (MBA, MA Psychology), founder and author of PsychMechanics. I’ve published one book and authored 400+ articles on this blog (started in 2014) that have garnered over 4.5 million views. PsychMechanics has been featured in Forbes, Business Insider, Reader’s Digest, and Entrepreneur. Feel free to contact me if you have a query.