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Sorry? – Yeah, Right!

Recently, I read an interesting brief article by Anne Eason in Academic Letters (June, 2021) ironically titled: “He said sorry” – Well that changes everything. This is well worth a read. It reminded me of the apologies men would talk about in our domestic violence intervention programs. Most of these men had said sorry for their violence and abuse to their partners tens, maybe even hundreds of times.

The word ‘sorry’ in our culture, when uttered by a wrong doer, has an unspoken social expectation of forgiveness on the part of the one who has been wronged. There is an implicit social contract that the response to “Oh sorry about that!” should be “Aw that’s alright – forgive and forget – it’s all in the past – let’s move on – kiss and make up, and I hope you’ve learned a lesson!” However, sorry changes nothing.

The word ‘sorry’ is just that – a word. On its own, it is not an expression of accountability. Even with flowers, it is not a sign of change for the better. In the mouth of an abuser, it is another manipulative tactic. A tool for silencing her and for keeping her hoping that maybe this time he really means it and he is changing. It is a tactic for shutting her up and not focusing on the abuse. “I said sorry, that should be the end of it. Stop bringing it up and living in the past. You’ve got to let it go. I said sorry, so shut the fuck up now!!!!!”

A genuine apology is backed up by the following signs :

· listening deeply to the pain of the person wronged

· taking responsibility for the harm you have done

· reparations and amends for wrong done

· willingness to accept the consequences of your actions

· no expectations that the person harmed responds in a favourable manner to you

· a commitment to never do or choose that harmful behaviour again.

Genuine sorrow leads to change. When the word is not followed up by making amends and genuine behavioural change, then it is an intentional ploy, uttered for the purpose of maintaining an unacceptable status quo. It is fake and false. It serves his control purposes, not her wellbeing and safety. For these men, sorry doesn’t seem to be “the hardest word”, but the most devious. Actions speak louder than words as the old saying goes. And actions are the only means by which we can judge genuine sorrow, from dangerous hot air. Real sorrow requires hard work for change.

All of us who work with men who use violence (magistrates, police, probation and parole officers, men’s domestic violence intervention group facilitators, men’s counsellors, etc) need to be aware of and wary of what I call tactical men’s apologies. Never, on its own, is it a sign of accountability or change. Don’t be fooled. The word “sorry” on its own is never enough! Whether it is uttered by an abuser, an institution, a service, an organisation, a practitioner, it doesn’t matter. If not back by genuine change, it is just another part of the camouflage and pretence, and not to be trusted.

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