Updated: Apr 14, 2018
So, you blew it. You made a mistake which has deeply hurt someone you once loved. There were all kinds of good reasons why you did what you did, but…all of those explanations haven’t helped you to forgive yourself.
Okay. You’re not alone. And you’re not stuck. There are two things you need to do now. They won’t be easy. First, you need to make a Really Good Apology. And then you need to make a plan for how you are not going to repeat your mistakes in the future. This is your path back to integrity with other people and yourself.
Betrayal has no statute of limitations. It doesn’t matter how long ago this happened. Even if many years have passed, it’s never too late.
This is the way a Really Good Apology goes:
1. I know what I did and I know how it made you feel. I’d feel the same way if I were you. (This must be said with no excuses and zero blame for the person you betrayed.)
2. I am really sorry and feel terrible about what I have done.
3. This is what I am going to do to make amends. (These actions should “fit the crime,” but can be for someone else or for the community at large if the person you hurt is not willing to allow you to make amends personally.)
Here’s an example of a Really BAD Apology:
“Let’s face it, our relationship sucked. You couldn’t say two words to me without telling me that I was a jerk. So, I found somebody else. She treats me with respect. Still I’m sorry you feel bad about the divorce and all.”
Okay, let’s move quickly to a Really Great one:
“I completely understand that you feel betrayed. We had a contract, and I have broken it. If the shoe was on the other foot, I know I’d be devastated. I feel sick with guilt about causing you this hurt. I don’t expect forgiveness, but I hope that you will allow me to make amends by (something meaningful to the other person).”
Does that apology seem kind of…vulnerable? It is! And it’s a risk. And it’s hard.
Really Good Apologies are rare for this very reason. Taking responsibility for your mistakes leaves you wide open to a person who may, at this moment, be extremely angry with you. Please remember that in making an apology you are NOT laying on the ground with the intention of letting the other person step on you. If they do open up and start to berate and blame you, the strong response is to just listen without defending yourself. You might say things like, “You’re deeply angry about what I’ve done.” Or, “You want me to know how hurt you are.” And, if they use the opening to start to negotiate or try to take advantage of you, you may need to set a firm boundary by saying something like, “No, that wouldn’t work for me.” Or, “We can discuss all of these ideas with our lawyer or counselor.”
Be sure to follow up with your idea for making amends. Your actions will speak much more loudly than your words. And then take the next step by resolving that in all of your future relationships you will act with complete integrity.
Acting with integrity, by the way, is very hard. It’s easier to lie, or to just avoid a situation, than to face it. Being committed to the path of self-forgiveness, though, can give you the self-discipline to keep your friend’s secrets, to refuse to participate in gossip or group bad-mouthing of others, to never say or do anything behind someone’s back that they wouldn’t do with them in the room, and to face problems in a relationship head-on.
In the end, the person you betrayed may never forgive you. That is their right. Your only job is to apologize, make meaningful amends, and resolve to do things differently in the future. Then you will have earned the right to let it go.
BETH PROUDFOOT, LMFT, is a collaborative divorce communications coach and child specialist in San Jose, CA. Permission is granted to reproduce this article in it's entirety, with attribution.