#392: Overdue apologies.

Darth Vader beckoning to Luke in Empire Strikes Back.
“Everything’s more dramatic and exciting on the Dark Side of the Force!”

Before we dig into today’s letter, I really like this “Ask Polly” piece at The Awl, I Miss My Maniac Ex. The Maniac Ex is what we around these parts would call a Darth Vader boyfriend.

So you focus on that one magical night, in the middle of a sea of terrible nights, where he held your hand and treated you like a person and you drank too much and that awesome song was playing and you imagined, in that moment, that you two were destined to be together forever, and your whole life might be this good. Lucky for you, your whole life turned out even better than that, it just doesn’t feel like it because you’ve become acclimated to love the way you used to be acclimated to suffering. Those highs you miss are the sorts of highs that occur in a life mostly made up of lows.

There are plenty of different kinds of bad partners. A Darth Vader, to me, is one who strings you along with tiny bits of your heart’s desire at carefully controlled intervals. Not enough to actually sustain you, but enough to keep you hooked. Enough to make you abdicate everything you know about what’s good for you.

Her advice about how to refocus these pangs and get past it is quite good.

Today’s letter, the first to come into the new inbox, is also about exes and regretting the past.

Dear Captain Awkward,

Two years ago, I ended a romantic relationship badly. It had been on-and-off-but-mostly-off for very, very long time…and by that time, it was a long-distance thing. When I broke things off, I was hurtful and ugly, ordering him to not contact me anymore. I received one text message from him after that, to which I did *not* respond (even though he wasn’t a stalker, I, in this way at least, treated him like one and held my ground on the no contact). I never heard from him again. Over the course of the last two years, I’ve learned a lot about myself and I’ve found an assertive authenticity that has boosted my self-esteem. I also recognized my wrong-doing in the way I figuratively kicked this guy in the nuts and felt a great deal of sorrow over it. My issues (that I have since made a lot of progress in working through) caused me to treat a fellow human miserably. It sucks to have been that woman.

I have no desire to begin any sort of relationship with him but at the same time, felt that I owed him an apology. A few months ago, I sent him an email that gently said just that. I completely understand that I have no right to expect a response – I’m totally cool there and I do not expect one (and said so in the email). For the record, though, I’ve grown enough to know that I don’t need his forgiveness; I have already forgiven myself. We all know where Good Intentions lead. . .but I did want to acknowledge to him that I know how badly I behaved and that I was sorry for it because that’s not what he deserved from me. And that I knew the relationship could not ever be again (seriously, I can’t stress enough my understanding of “Done” as a proper noun kind of finished) but that I wished him the best.

So, O Wise Captain, did I commit a huge and glaring mistake in sending that One Last Message? Or did I do a decent thing from the right sort of place in myself?


Decent Or Delusional?

Dear Decent/Delusional:

You say you’ve forgiven yourself, so I want you to embrace the possibility that back when you broke up you were doing the best you could to take care of yourself. In an on-again, off-again thing, you needed to be Permanently Off, and you cut off contact completely because you’d tried to break up before and it hadn’t really taken. Maybe you were afraid that you’d second-guess yourself to death, or that he’d talk you into one more try, or your stupid pantsfeelings would rear up and trip you on the way out the door (again).

Adulting has a good, simple list of things you can do to be “decent” when breaking up. It echoes this old post, and should satisfy the folks who think that this is too cold (even if it is sometimes necessary self-preservation). But even if you are as gentle as you can possibly be, there is no way to break up with someone who still wants to be with you without causing them some pain.

I’m relying on Adulting heavily today, but there are apologies we make for other people, and there are apologies we make for ourselves, and I think this one was more the second kind. Why? Because you’re still gnawing on the problem trying to get something you didn’t quite get. You didn’t get reassurance or forgiveness from him, so now you’d like to get it from us.

The 10th Doctor and the TARDIS
Even if you could travel through time and space, you couldn’t go back and fix your old mistakes.

If you’d written to me before you sent the apology letter, I would have advised you to hold off. You say you don’t want to reopen any kind of relationship with him (even a friendship), he lives at some distance (so you don’t share a social circle and it’s not about maybe running into him somewhere and wanting to smooth that over). While your letter may have provided him some valuable vindication and resolution, there is a high potential that it just made him uncomfortable. He spends all this time dealing and forgetting and moving on, then WHAM! He has to think about all of it again, and he has to do it on your schedule, and he has to let you have the last word (again) or else open up some new awkward line of communication. The fact that he didn’t contact you when he got the email actually speaks well of how things ended up! It means that he has enough closure that he doesn’t need to engage with you about what happened anymore.

When I’ve gotten out-of-the-blue apologies from people that I’m not really interested in interacting with in the present day (grade school bullies, someone I went out with a few times nine (!?!) years ago), I generally feel weird for a few minutes (sometimes because I am trying to remember the person at all). Then I either delete the thing and block them, or write back something like “I hope you feel better after apologizing – honestly, I had forgotten the whole thing and you have nothing to be sorry for. Best wishes” and then delete/block because I don’t want to get into a whole thing about the ancient feelings of total strangers. Whatever they are about has nothing to do with me at this point.

I realize you were more intimate with this guy than that, but apologizing after a few months would have been way too soon because you were still emotionally engaged in the situation. Two years is too late. So my theory is that maybe there was no good time to apologize to this person, and the emotional statute of limitations has run out.

But you know what? That’s just my opinion. Some people are really touched and moved by late apologies. It may have felt really good to get your note, and helped him put something to rest. And making amends has its place, though even 12-step programs include the caveat that amends are not about apologies to make yourself feel better, they are about directly restoring what was lost or doing so symbolically when reaching out directly to someone would distress them – you aren’t entitled to forgiveness or redemption.

So, how do we help you put this completely to rest? Because right or wrong, you need to stop torturing yourself about this, and it’s not like you can apologize to him for making a weird, unwanted apology.

Closure is something you make for yourself, so make it. Delete his phone number and block his email so that if he does send you a reply at some point it will go into the ether, where it belongs. Get rid of old messages, letters, photos if you haven’t already. Create a goofy ritual: Say “I am sorry” three times and walk Widdershins around a churchyard. Pick one of your friends at random and buy them pancakes that are secretly “I am making amends to the universe through a small act of kindness” pancakes, or better yet, donate a little money anonymously to charity.

It seems like you are a thoughtful person who tries sincerely to learn from their mistakes, so comfort yourself with that. You apologized as cleanly as you could and didn’t ask for anything for yourself, and that doesn’t make you a bad person or “delusional.”  It makes you kind. And by writing this, maybe you gave someone else a way to ask “Who is this for, really?” when they consider reaching out to someone from the past.

Sometimes you don’t get congratulations from the universe when you level up, and self-awareness has to be its own reward.

67 thoughts on “#392: Overdue apologies.

  1. “Sometimes you don’t get congratulations from the universe when you level up, and self-awareness has to be its own reward.”

    Can we add this to the list of Wisdom That Must Be Embroidered Onto Pillows?

    IMHO, the helpfulness of apologies from exes is inversely proportional to the messiness of the breakup because the dump-ee needs that much more space.

    EG #1: I once got a gchat message from the ex-girlfriend who treated me well before she dumped me, after we hadn’t spoken for three or four years, and she poured out FEELINGSVOMIT. She didn’t mean to hurt me, I deserved better than that, it wasn’t fair to me, etc. Apparently her conscience had tortured her for years and she had literally lost sleep over this. Meanwhile, I had no hard feelings, moved to a new city and basically forgot that she existed. I was just glad to be back in touch, and when she passed through my city a few months later we got dinner and had a nice conversation. Haven’t talked much since then, but it was enough to make us both feel better about that chapter of our lives.

    EG #2: In college, Darth Vader dumped me two days before I left for my year abroad. I spent the first few weeks licking my wounds, then started to appreciate the awesomeness of travel. Then after months of no contact, Darth Vader left a drunken apology on my facebook wall. This was even more Schadenfreude-licious because it happened at 4am on a Tuesday and before his public FEELINGSVOMIT, he had hidden our relationship from his friends. Then he started sending me emails, and suddenly the dark side of the Force was back in my life. Instead of concentrating on making new friends, I spent all my energy trying to figure out that mess. Not that the LW is a Darth Vader, but maybe her ex needs a chance to move on without distractions from the past.

    The one exception to the rule: when that chapter is so thoroughly over, the Schadenfreude makes the dump-ee happy. Every time Darth Vader #2 drunkenly emails me to say, “Hey, I was watching The Office and thought of you. Wanna hang out?” I laugh my ass off and feel better about life. But no one should try to be Darth Vader #2.

    1. Jaysus, I don’t know about you, but facebook opened a floodgate of unwanted apologies. I got about five from folks in junior high and high school who bullied me. Many went on and on about sad things happening in their own lives that made them want to bully me. I simply gave a standard “water under the bridge response” and never heard from them again. While it was really water under the bridge and I had long gotten over it and was genuinely happy they were on the road of letting pain go, I really felt violated. It really did feel like a one sided street. They didn’t ask how it felt for me or even that I got over it. They just needed their apology regardless.

      1. I totally got Facebook Bully Apologies too. It was kinda shitty and retraumatizing :/ I did also get an apology from my first-year roommate who had a breakdown and dropped out – it felt good to be able to tell her she’d done me no harm and had been a perfectly fine roommate. Hopefully that helped her heal a bit.

  2. I got a weird apology about 15 years ago from a guy I went to high school with, whom I’d once asked out to one of those dances where the girls ask the boys (back in the Pre-Cambrian era). So it had been hella long since that whole thing (20 years, I mean), and he’d become a minister and the last thing I ever wanted to be even when I was more religious was a minister’s wife, so y’know, I’d kinda moved on. He lived in another borough of NYC than me, and we’d both grown up in Ohio, and whatever. He came to a reading I did and that was cool.

    Then he started emailing me trying to re-save my soul. AWK-WARD. As it turned out, we had a civil exchange of emails in which he tried and failed to get me back to the fundamentalist views that I had worked really hard to get over. It ended up being pretty helpful to me, because I got to articulate as an adult all the things I’d been too young to work out or had always bothered me but I’d been too young to articulate well (or even have the nerve to try to articulate them), and no I really don’t believe a loving father burns his kids forever for not being in the right subsect of the right religion. After that exchange he went away.

    But I agree, that was one hell of a statute of limitations for someone who asked you out one time and shrugged and moved on.

  3. My friend and I once dated two best friends. When my friend’s relationship tanked, my guy stood me up on a date and then never contacted me again. I guess it really bothered him because two years later I found him on my front porch. He wanted to apologize before he moved out of town. Honestly, I figured that the break up was just a way to back up his friend and didn’t give it a second thought. The apology, though, I thought was sweet.

  4. I don’t believe I’ve commented here before, but I’m coming out of the woodwork to say that I think this situation could TOTALLY go either way (in terms of was it the right or wrong thing to do). For me, there really isn’t an emotional statue of limitations–if someone did something bad to me and has decided to acknowledge it, I really appreciate it, even if it’s something that I’m not hung up on; I appreciate that I was important enough to them (or that the thing they did was bad enough) that they were concerned about my feelings. I understand that an apology from someone else may be more about them than about me, but I appreciate the chance to change my view of that person or understand them more. I like being reminded that people are not static.

    From a more personal point of view, there is an ex of mine who I would like to apologize to me, even years later. I’m definitely done with him, and have come to some closure within myself about why our relationship didn’t work out, but a short apology note from him would be really satisfying. I don’t NEED it, but I’d like it.

  5. I’m not sure the apology has to have been either for the LW or for the ex; it could have been mostly driven by a desire to make amends, with maybe just a soupçon of “and maybe ex’ll tell me ex is over it and I can lay this guilt to rest.”

    Whatever it was, I think the real question is not “did I do the right thing apologizing?” but have I now given this relationship/breakup/apology all the thought and all the action it makes any sense at all to give it?”

    I’m pretty sure you know the answer to that is “oh, yeah!” Time to use the word “Done” again.

  6. I’m one of those people who feels that two years isn’t too late to apologize. My one caveat would be that an apology letter should be very short and to the point – just “I’ve realized I didn’t behave well back then and I’m sorry” – no detailed references to specific events because that might stir up a bunch of old icky feelings in the other person.

    Oh, and obviously the apology needs to be for the other person’s benefit, not because the offending party is fishing for forgiveness.

    It sorta sounds like the LW did it right on both counts, so yay for owning one’s issues and making amends!

  7. Been thinking about this kind of thing, as a now-defunct anniversary is coming out and I am anxious that an evil ex will appear in some capacity as he did last year (with an innocuous comment on my blog, that nevertheless ruined my evening). My ex was fairly evil, but even non-evil people can cause the kind of hurt where a person really doesn’t want to hear from them ever again.

    There’s someone I would like to apologise and explain myself to in my own life, over very strange events that occurred several years ago (life was very weird, I acted weirdly, and I may or may not have caused a friend to feel pretty weird about it). However, we’re not as close as we were then, and I would only ever breach that subject if the opportunity arose – if we were chatting about the past and those events came up naturally, then I could say, “And by the way, remember all that weirdness? Well, I’m really sorry for that and if you like, will explain what really happened…”

    This is not to say that the LW’s ex will not have appreciated the e-mail – he may have, it may have helped in some way or it may have ruined his day, or he may have seen the name and binned it, or he may already have that address filtered just in case.

    However, it is all water under the bridge. If it was a mistake, it wasn’t an awful mistake. The very worst case scenario if that unwanted feelings were stirred up, but that was a month ago, so that’ll most likely be forgotten about by now. I second the suggestion of a laying-to-rest ritual.

  8. OK, I’m boggling at the second Ask Polly letter. His poor girlfriend. Not to mention his coworker, on whom he seems to have developed an impressive case of Oneitis. I don’t see this whole mess ending well.

    On topic. I would also have advised you not to send the email. However, having done so, I think the best thing you can do now is nothing. Don’t send another, don’t try and friend him on Facebook, don’t tweet him. The ball is in his court.

    Maybe this did bring him closure. Maybe he’s happy to have gotten it, but isn’t ready to respond. Maybe he thinks the best thing to do is to not respond so this doesn’t become a THING.

    OTOH, maybe it infuriated him, or made him sad, or melancholy. Either way, you’ve said what you felt you needed to. Now, it’s up to him.

    So let it go. Create that ritual, release the feelings and then get on with your life.

  9. I realize that every situation is different – so my personal situation/feelings obviously do not apply to everyone. Captain gave great advice as always. That being said, I was hurt very badly by two people I really cared about years ago, and it totally devastated me. It would mean an enormous amount to me if they ever sent a note just saying they feel bad for their behavior and didn’t think I was total shit. ‘Cause it feels like they just went on to live their lives without a bit of concern for the way they destroyed me. Again, it would mean a lot just to hear they they feel bad, and that I didn’t deserve what happened.

    Yeah, I need to let it go….I know. Any advice on forgiving/forgetting? I really hate these people.

    1. Write them a letter but don’t send it? It worked for my horrible ex who I always wanted to have apologise to me (and it’s been five years and I dumped her) and couldn’t let go of. Told her everything I thought about her, all the ways she’d treated me badly, and that I hoped one day she felt sorry for her behaviour.

      I actually did post mine, but only with her name on and no stamp, so there’s no way it could get to her, but it made me feel better about the possibility that now it was out there. I didn’t think it would work at all, but actually it really did make me feel so much better.

      And I’m sorry you had to deal with such horrible people.

      1. If you don’t send the letter, I strongly recommend burning it, shredding it, burying it… any kind of ritual that helps add to that sense of ‘done’. It may sound a little silly, but in my experience it really does help.

      2. Can I just say that I *love* the idea of mailing something with no address and no stamp? Love, love, love. Because I’ve tried the burning and the shredding and it just wasn’t satisfying and didn’t provide me with resolution. But mailing it, like, the physical act of putting it in the mailbox, even though it will never get to the person? Genius. Pure genius.

    2. All I can say is that I know how you’re feeling. I don’t have any advice. I just had faith that my hurt and anger would fade away into indifference, which it mostly has, and that what goes around comes around, although it usually only comes around long after you stop caring.

    3. Hi, person who has a variation of my name and my exact problem.

      They are never going to write you/us a letter, because they are kind of terrible people. They seem like they’ve moved on because they HAVE. We’re stuck dealing with the aftermath of their bad behaviour, but they don’t have to, and it isn’t fair and everything sucks. And some of the time you feel totally okay with it, and some of the time you have to go cry in a public toilet because you saw a store dedicated to beef jerky and she loved beef jerky and she was jerky and everything is sad now. Yes? Yes.

      What has helped me is talking publically, with their names redacted, about what happened and how I may be no saint, but I didn’t deserve what they did. I’ve blogged about it, and started to talk about it with my new friends. I’ve reconnected with people they pushed me away from years ago, and we’ve talked about it, too. I know they aren’t going to ever offer an apology, because I know them. They were my best friends for seven years. It would require growth and self-awareness I’m not convinced they are even capable of having for them to decide to apologize.

      I kept this hope that they might realize all of the sudden that they had been assholes pretty quietly, because it was irrational. Only by keeping that hope I was also keeping them actively in my thoughts. So I set about conciously deciding that we were done. DONE. For real done. I gave myself the closure I could via paragraph 3 of this comment and then said to my cats that I was done. And maybe my cats are magic or something, but it’s seriously better. I talked about it with people who I knew would listen, remembered that they always required me to apologize when they behaved badly, and said I was done. My need for an apology from them has kind of dissolved (and I have mixed feelings about getting one now if they did get personality transplants). The time frame is similar, too–we’re right at 2 years for me since our last big fight. Maybe it’s the temporal distance. But also maybe magic cats.

      1. Yes. Thank you so much for your thoughts. You are so right, about everything and how it feels. And about being DONE.

    4. This all sounds so familiar, except I don’t hate the person, I love the person, which isn’t necessarily easier.

      You are not total shit. Their behavior does not make you a total shit. They hurt you, and they’re not likely to apologize, and you can’t even guarantee they think they /did/ anything they need to apologize for (mind-boggling, I know, right?), but all this does not say /anything/ bad about YOU. You are worth all the good things in the world, and I would love you to be able to hear an apology you want to hear, but if it doesn’t come, then I’d love you to consider the fact that you are still just as wonderful and amazing a person.

      And your pain is still real, and it was still important and meaningful, no matter who sees it or acknowledges it. /You/ know it’s real. And you don’t deserve what happened. /You/ know you don’t. That’s who knows. Not them, or anyone random else. You.

      1. Thank you. Such wise thoughts, you are right. I guess it comes down to the thought that you would never treat a person in such a way, so how could people (whom you thought were good) do that to someone? It boggles your mind, but you have a good perspective on this. Thanks again.

  10. My emotionally abusive ex texted me four years after our very messy breakup. He said “I’m sorry for everything.” I had deleted his number so I responded “Who is this?” That lead to a fairly civil conversation about our break up and some of the relationship issues. It provided me with closure and really helped me avoid some of the same problems in my current relationship. Anyway, all that’s just to say that sometimes the random apology can be really useful or appreciated.
    That being said, I also really love the Captain’s advice about finding ways to even out your karma that don’t impose on the person you feel you wronged. Next time I face this dilemma I’m going to donate to charity and buy a sad friend pancakes!

    1. That must have been rather disconcerting for him. And talk about AWKWARD. “Um. I’m the… I mean, I was your… well, you know. Bob.”

      I am having a bit of a happy imagining the rest, like “Bob who?” and “Oh, THAT Bob. I haven’t thought of you in years” and so on. Because abuse survivors are never supposed to stop thinking about their abusers!

    2. I wish my emotionally abusive / sexually coercive ex’s “apology” had gone that well… instead it went like this:

      Darth Vader: I’m sorry I fucked up and pushed you away, I realize now that I do that to people I care about.
      Me: That’s awesome that you’ve figured that out. I appreciate the apology. Now that you realize that, what are you going to do about it?
      DV: I don’t know :/
      Me: Well, you can get therapy, figure it out on your own, or talk it through with someone. I can’t be the person you talk it through, because I’m still dealing with the hurt that you caused me. Good luck though, and let me know when you get it figured out. Until then, I don’t really feel safe letting you back into my life, sorry.
      Me: Hey so did you not get that message I sent you? Where I said you need to deal with your shit before I feel safe letting you back into my life?
      Me: Do not contact me again.

      I still have so much guilt over cutting them off, but I just got tired of the gaslighting and “you’re not allowed to have emotions” bullshit that it finally outweighed how much I wanted to have them in my life :/

      1. Ugh, the apologies that are like “applaud my self-realization” are the worst. GO REALIZE ELSEWHERE.

  11. I think this all hinges on the nature of the apology. If itte is a big pile of FEELINGSVOMIT, then yeah, blechh. If itte is a brief note that says, “Hey. I now realize I behaved poorly back when, and I am sorry for itte. I hope you are doing well.”, then I think itte’s fine.

  12. I don’t think two years is too late for an apology…. as long as it’s done right. “Right,” in this case, is low-pressure, sincere, and does not pressure them to respond. It lets the other person know you recognize your mistake and care enough about them to say sorry. I’ve had people apologize like that for decade-old things and it usually makes me feel better.

    1. Completely agree. “you recognize your mistake and care enough about them to say sorry.” So true.

  13. Somewhat tangential, but I have had two different people apologize to me for treating me badly in middle school. I thought it was absolutely awesome. I consider one of those people a friend now, even if not a close friend, and the other I’d be glad to run into, which is something I never thought I’d say. It always cheers me up to see that lots of people, maybe most, get better over the years rather than worse. But that’s far from saying that all possible such apologies should be made. (Who has the time, for one thing?) Also, I am a person who does dwell on the past and often thinks about it. A catharsis moment about something that went wrong that far in the past is therefore actually useful to me. It wouldn’t be for a lot of folks.

  14. I like apologies. Maybe that’s because I’m still somewhat emotionally backward, but I am the kind of person that carries pain and guilt for a long time, even if the breakup wasn’t All My Fault. The times I’ve been given a sorry (sometimes years and years afterwards) I’ve always been grateful. The relationships were always part of my story and to hear what the other side felt, or how it was perceived, has helped me understand perspective and now it can be vastly different from one person to the next. I’m in favour of the apology so long as it doesn’t lead to “but really I just want to be back in your life” when I don’t want that.

  15. I once got good advice from a therapist on how to come out to my parents: I should tell them why I was doing it, and what response I wanted from them.

    Seems to me the same advice might apply to getting back in touch with people one has been out of touch with, whether or not apologies are involved.

    I also don’t think there’s a strict statute of limitations on apologies.

        1. I am not about to come out to my parents – but about to tell them I’ve become engaged to my awesome boyfriend who they deem less than awesome. This helps a lot! Thank you.

  16. I think I would be weirded out by an apology from a years-ago ex. I don’t hold onto the past like that, for the most part. There’s a couple of hurts I have held on to but an apology would not help, I don’t think. Maybe because the folks in question didn’t seem capable of offering a no-strings apology.

    Mostly though, having contact with them would be most likely to stir up emotions I don’t want. I had some very rough times and so the emotions tied up with some of these people from my past are intense, spiky, dark. My life isn’t like that now, for all of my difficulties, because I worked really hard to make it so. I don’t think about these people much, and especially not the hurts, but if I do go back and visit those moments in my mind, I get a wave of those Unpleasant Feelings.

    So I would want to be *really* sure that the apology is for them, and that it has a decent chance of helping. If you know someone well enough, you can often make a guess about that. Does this person really value apologies or gestures of amends? Not everybody does. Did this person ask you not to contact them? Have you heard things through the grapevine that suggest that your apology might be helpful? Is this person the forgiving kind? The forgetting kind?

    Also, do you have a history of needing the Last Word? Do you have a history of contacting this person when they would prefer you didn’t?

  17. We can file this under YMMV, but I feel very strongly that if a two-years-too-late apology is going to come at all, then it had better be specific. If my Darth Vader ex Emailed me to say that he was sorry he treated me poorly, my private response before blocking him would be a noisy, flatulent “SO?!?!?!” (In fact, it was a terribly sore point between us that his apologies were always nonspecific, window-dressing only.) On the other hand, if he Emailed me to say that he was sorry he gaslighted me, well, that would be something. I’ve made my peace with the inevitability that I will never have such an apology from him, but if one came, sure, it would be a different kind of peace.

    But I’d rather not hear from him ever again. So there’s that, too.

  18. I think, as other people said, it depends on how it’s done (short and sweet), but also on how badly you treated someone. Like, if you were outright abusive, don’t apologize. Don’t ever apologize. Don’t even try to get back in touch with them for any reason.

    Sure, some people still appreciate it even then, as is clear from the varied comments here, but my abusive ex came back a year and a half later to apologize and it was fucking horrible, made me burst into tears, and I was an emotional wreck for the rest of the week. And I know I’m certainly not the only one.

    If you treated someone REALLY badly, they will usually not want to hear how sorry you are. They do not even want to be reminded that you exist. And if you are really sorry, you need to accept that.

    (this is not at all meant to imply that I think the LW was abusive. This is more a general response in case other people are thinking about apologizing)

    1. I agree. Especially as apologies are a really common element in abuse cycles.

      I’ve had an abusive ex send me a really heartfelt apology nearly a year after, only to receive a nasty message berating me for ignoring him a few days later when I didn’t respond. The abusive behaviour hadn’t changed, only the proximity and the time scale. The only way an apology from him could mean anything would be if I was allowed to ignore it, and because I can’t predict the future then even if he has completely changed I will never know that I have been allowed to ignore it and that a shit storm of further abuse isn’t coming at some point. Any contact from him, no matter how positive, triggers months of anxiety.

      1. I’m so sorry you’ve had this – I was married to this man (or his equally evil twin). I often think, even in the unlikely scenario that he did completely change and learn the error of his ways, part of that would be realising that contacting me would harm me, whatever he had to say. He would be busy making amends through helping others, somehow. The greatest recompense he could make to me would be uninterrupted peace.

      2. Exactly — the apology doesn’t really prove anything because if the person was abusive to us we’ve heard apologies a whole lot. How can we tell that THIS time it’s real and not just that the cycle is spanning a longer period of time? That’s part of what made me feel so horrible when my abusive ex came back to apologize). How could I possibly know if this time he was actually sorry. Just like every other time. It just felt like I was being roped right back into the abuse cycle all over again.

    2. Yeah, this is a great point. If you were actually abusive or otherwise did substantial tangible harm to someone, then leave them alone. But if you were just kind of douchey, immature, selfish, unkind, or whatever, then maybe it is ok, subject to all of the caveats raised on this thread.

  19. This is hard, because if you’re not talking to someone you don’t know how they’ve changed since you last talked to them. Maybe they’re over you and your apology will give them a little bit of extra closure, or maybe they’re not quite over you and your apology will dredge up bad memories, or maybe they’re trying to put you behind them and your apology will just make them feel guilty for not responding, or maybe none of those. Already this comment thread has people who have had all those reactions. You just have to blindly shove some feelings into their life and hope those feelings are good for them, and chances are you’re never going to know whether it worked.

    Mostly I think when someone’s been out of my life for a while, they’ve developed their own coping strategies and they don’t need me to shake things up. Maybe seeing me as an awful person is part of how they cope, and it’s not the worst thing in the world for someone I’ll never see again to think less of me. There are times long-overdue-apologies are the right thing to do, but you really have to ask yourself what you hope to achieve other than easing your own conscience.

  20. Count me as one who would appreciate an apology for wrongdoings of long ago. Offhand, I only remember being on the receiving end of such apologies twice. They both happened at my 20th high school reunion, from former classmates who made fun of me in fourth grade and eighth grade, respectively. I barely remembered one, and remembered mostly good things about the other. I still appreciated the gesture.

  21. I say it’s a good thing, speaking as someone who held grudges for literally years in my youth. I’ve gotten over that (it was too much effort) but any time someone hurt me badly enough that I’d do it, all I really wanted was acknowledgement from them that they understood that what they’d done had hurt me. The grudge I held for longest was against someone I’d considered a dear friend, and despite the fact that he wanted to be friends still and so did I, I couldn’t be his friend again until I heard from his own mouth that he understood why I’d cut him out. That story does have a happy ending – we patched things up about a week before what I knew would probably be the last time I ever saw him, because I didn’t want to remember him forever as a complete jerk. It was five years too late, and I had to ask for it, but it was still an apology and it still felt good.

    Maybe your ex doesn’t hold onto feelings like that – good for him, if so – but if he does, and if you stop at what you’ve already said, it’s probably as close to making the best of a bad situation as you’re going to get.

  22. I don’t think apologizing is really a good idea. If you were truly horrible and emotionally abusive to him, he doesn’t want to hear from you. If all you did was decide to break up with him and cut off contact, there’s really no need to apologize. Continue having your contact cut-off. Yes, dropping someone like a sack of potatoes hurts them – but it is well within your rights and telling someone “I should have broken up with you nicer” isn’t helpful.

  23. I guess I don’t understand why you owed your ex an apology. Breaking up with someone is not a way to even figuratively kick them in the nuts. It may hurt but people end relationships all the time. Guys I have been involved with have broken up with me and I never thought they owed me an apology for it. Asking for no contact and enforcing the boundary is not treating someone like a stalker–it’s asking for distance and sticking to your word. I do not for the life of me see how it’s “hurtful and ugly” to ask that someone not contact you after you break up with them.

    As far as late apologies go, eh. Honestly, if it was a long time ago I’d rather just be left alone as more often than not, the apologizer only wants to make themselves feel better. And you know–one hurtful person in my life kept apologizing for the shitty things he did and then continued to do them. So I think the words “I’m sorry” can be the cheapest words in the universe.

    But in this case, I really do not see how you owe anyone an apology. People end relationships. People ask for and expect space.

    1. This. I was actually not expecting your final question to the Captain to be ‘did I do the right thing here’ but ‘how can I get past this?’. You broke up with a person you really liked, but needed to be apart from. You asked for space, and when that space was violated (even if ‘only’ by a text) you maintained that boundary and deleted the message. You moved on with your life, he moved on with his. Whatever the effect the apology had on him, I think maybe the thing to consider here is why this is still such a huge deal to you.

  24. As someone who recently received a long overdue apology (this time from someone who bullied me as a kid) I have to say I found the whole experience slightly touching but mainly confusing seeing as the event in question had happened over 10 years ago and didn’t really affect me that much. I think it almost affected my bully more than it affected me as she spoke of how she thinks about it all the time and continuously feels terrible about having been that person. All it did was stir up some weird shit in me and a strange sense of guilt. I keep thinking about how after all that I don’t even know her name and never did in the first place. The apology almost opened some old wounds inside me although I accepted it as graciously as I could in the circumstances (the whole exchange took place in the ladies bathroom of a pub)

  25. I don’t expect over-due apologies from childhood tormentors or old exes, but I would appreciate it if it was a genuine apology. Knowing I would welcome an apology is probably why I would be more inclined to send a belated “I’m sorry” to someone I really hurt like the LW.

    But I think you have to know your audience. It looks like there are plenty of people who deal with things moving on, and forcing someone to re-live a bad experience by your random apology can be really intrusive and unwanted, no matter what the good intentions are behind it.

  26. I think it depends on the person and the manner of the apology. Saying “I don’t expect a response but I just wanted you to know” goes a long way (for me) in alleviating the feeling that they’re doing it for them, not me, because then I’m under no obligation to say anything, and certainly not to say anything more than “Thank you for saying this”.

    I had a college roommate email me several years later and apologize for being such a party girl crazypants, and it really made me feel good. She was a frustrating roommate to have (set her three (!) alarm clocks for seven AM but frequently didn’t come back to the room at night, so they’d go off two hours before I needed to get up, and she wasn’t there to turn them off), and I never had the impression that she had noticed in the slightest what a pain in the ass her antics could be. So it was a nice surprise to hear back from her and catch up and see that we’d both become pretty reasonable adults.

    I also know that I have an extreme love of hearing versions of “You were right”, so my fondness for apologies — belated or otherwise — might just be another version of my fondness for being told I’m right.

  27. I had an apology such as this come back to nip me in the arse just a bit. In my case, it was about ten years after the fact and I’d finally worked through some Major Shit which caused flashing neon signs of epiphany to go off in my head, so I sat down and wrote my ex-spouse a mid length letter of apology, and finished it off with the whole I hope you have a good life bit. Surprised indeed I was to hear back, and pleased at first, particularly because he did not want to go over all the relationship Feelings. Nope. Turned out, he wanted me back in his life for the same reasons I’d left in the first place, which basically came down to uber needy clinginess and a lack of ability to sort out his own life shit, to which I had reacted very badly the first time around, thus apology. We exchanged a couple letters and then I got one which set off all my warning bells, so just sort of never wrote him back. For me, sending the apology was a final goodbye and for him receiving the apology was permission to glom on again. Whoops.

  28. I’m in a place where I’m getting over a friends-exes-it’s-complicated situation. About a month after she finally told me that she needed space and I broke off contact, I got a very vague “I’m not mad at you, this is something I have to do for myself, it’s going to be a while, best wishes.”

    My response has been essentially: what on earth was the point of that email? Do you even realize that I’m not mad at you because the friendship is broken and you need to take time to yourselves? I am certainly not happy that the friendship is broken. However, you have the right to make decisions about who is going to be in your life. That decision was going to hurt regardless, and I’m processing it.

    I am, however, pissed because you dicked me around and took several months to finally tell me that, and only did so because I prompted you to do so. And left me hanging for days after I prompted you to do so. And then told me that you knew a break had to happen, but I had to figure it out for myself. And this is on top of everything else that didn’t I didn’t appreciate, like not communicating things I needed to know, or even understanding why I needed to know them, even when I asked you to, and some emotional manipulation fuckwittery.

    In any case, part of me still wants to be friends. Because there is good in her, I feel it. So that part of me just wants her to apologize and try to make amends, because apologies alone won’t cut it, because the trust is gone. But I know that it will take a dramatic change in personality and communication style on both parts to make for a healthy relationship after what we’ve been through. So I doubt it will ever happen, even if she decided she wanted to reconnect. So in the meantime: I want nothing from her. Nothing she can say can make it better. Even if I wasn’t specifically pissed about how she passive-aggressived me into African Violeting her, how is apologizing for needing to African Violet me going to help me?

    So I’m with the others, and the original answer. Before contacting an ex, figure out what you want from that communication. Figure out if that’s fair to the person you’re delivering the communication to. Figure out if it is about them, or about you. Think about whether you even know what is good for the other person. It’s awfully presumptuous to assume that the person you want to contact even wants or needs your communication. If you don’t want a response, then why are you sending the email? If you do want a response, do you want to re-open a relationship? If not, then why do you want a response?

    As I said to my dearest friend as we talked about this, it is not her fault that I am still processing. It is not her fault that if I have issues letting go. It is my responsibility to take care of myself and to deal with the situation on hand in a healthy manner. I cannot blame her for my emotions, especially now that I’m not in a relationship with her any longer. In the same way, you are not responsible for the way your ex feels.

    The point is that you don’t get to decide how they process the end of the relationship. Unless you want some form of relationship with that person, it is my opinion that you should just leave them alone. Anything else is ego.

  29. Oh god, I have been an OOTBA (Out-of-the-blue apologizer). A relatively harmless one, all told, but never again. It certainly wasn’t done out of consideration for the person I felt that I had wronged, although I didn’t see it that way at the time.

  30. Just another voice for apologizing. At my age, two years, five years, 10 years? All rather recent to me. I always appreciate a better understanding of a situation, expecially if the person I’ve been interacting with wants to do right by me.

    After reading the Captain I realize not everyone is like that. But I would have appreaciated your effort.

  31. These topics of apologies and wanting closure hit close to home for me.

    In grad school, I met a colleague from another university. We worked together, we became friends of some sort, and I developed a crush on her (never acted on it though, as she had a boyfriend).
    She graduated, I continued grad school, and some time later asked her for a professional favor in connection with her past grad school work.
    I have the feeling that she might have felt pressured into agreeing, and I feel that I failed in giving her the appropriate credit.

    I wrote her a mail to apologize, but she never replied to that mail.
    (I also feel that I could have done a better job on the apology, as it one focuses on one of the two issues.)

    We still are occasionally in thouch via email, but I feel that friendship has become looser, and I wonder if that is because we are simply growing apart from each other as our common research topic is past, or if that is because I fucked it up.
    (Or if this is just an imagination and my bad conscience makes me believe.)

    I’d like to apologize again, but I also know that I shouldn’t drag these issues up again for the sole reason that I’d like to get closure.

  32. LW, from reading all the comments, I get the feeling that the answer to your question is ‘it depends entirely on the individual person who received the apology’. So, unless you have a clear and specific reason to think that someone actually wants an apology from you, it’s probably best to err on the side of not sending one.

    FWIW, I received an apology out of the blue from someone in my circle of friends at Uni, apologizing for being such a git and treating people badly. While it was true that they were and did, and it’s nice when anyone wants to stop being a git, I didn’t particularly want the apology, and getting it out of the blue made me uncomfortable for various reasons.

  33. Many, many thanks from a grateful LW. I know there’s only so much that can be put into an advice column letter, so the entire (human, awful, sad) tale couldn’t be fully told.

    Maybe it was an “I should have broken up with you nicer” apology…but I think out of the few “good” (as opposed to “not being a complete asshole about it”) ways to do it, I chose a way that was on the opposite end of the spectrum that was disproportionate to the moderate unhealthiness of the relationship (no abuse, but a mutual using of another person when we were both pretty broken ourselves).

    After I sent him that short, to-the-point message (where I didn’t try to excuse or explain away my behavior – I kept it too short for a FEELINGSDUMP on purpose, though at the time, I didn’t have a word to describe that action I was avoiding. Thanks, Cap’n!), I had done a fairly decent job of letting him go…but then I found Captain Awkward’s blog and began reading about the exes who try to emotionally manipulate someone with an apology – or do any other number of ugly things, cloaking it in an “I’m sorry”. I started second guessing myself (and by association, also second guessing my motives).

    So, I’ve read through the comments and spent quiet time actually processing my thoughts and feelings. Having known him for 18 years, I can say that the apology would have either helped him in some way or done nothing at all. I definitely did no harm. My motives were/are genuinely good ones. I realize now that I just needed a little more insight and perspective from outside the situation. For this particular time, the apology was the right thing to do.

    Again, thank you Captain and thank you to all of you awesome commenters. Bless your faces.

  34. Late to the party here. I’m on the fence about the whole apology thing. When I get together with a college friend, we inevitably dredge up our shared youth and incidents from 20+ years ago. I am still boggled and confused about how otherwise terrifyingly awesome people could do something tremendously hurtful to me (and apparently only me). Back in the day, I wasn’t able to talk about my feelings at all, so I wasn’t able to discuss the incidents with the friends in question, or even any sort of third party.

    A few years after I graduated, I visited one of those friends who hurt me, and at the end of the visit I did manage to ask him why he led me on. He told me that he was using me to fend off the advances of someone else. 😮 When I shared this with our close mutual friend who’d started dating him right after the incident (and that’s how I found out he really wasn’t interested in me), she said that he probably thought I would blow the whole thing off as no big deal because I appeared so blase. O rly? So perceived lack of consequences makes it okay to use someone without their consent or understanding? She wanted to know why I didn’t further confront him, but it took all my courage to just ask the starting question. And now he’s happily married and we’ve fallen out of touch, so there’s really no point. He really is a wonderful person except for this one little incident.

    And because I wasn’t able to communicate emotions, I also caused some hurts without explanation or anything more than what seemed a superficial apology. Similarly, by the time I had developed communication skills, people were married and busy with their lives, and there was no point in dragging up the past to apologize and explain myself. Sigh.

    And I have no desire to have any communication with my abusive ex, ever. Getting updates filtered through mutual connections is close enough. There is no chance of either apology or mutual understanding there.

    Would I appreciate discussing the past sometime to gain additional perspective, yes, sure. But I’m reconciled to living without it. People are complicated, and much in life remains a mystery.

  35. As someone who got dumped awhile ago via being totally cut off (though, for me, without any formal break up, just by being totally shut out and ignored after 2.5 years in an on-again, on-again relationship), I think you absolutely did the right thing. I think he did the right thing, too, by not responding. If it was me in his situation, I would have taken some comfort in the fact that you had gained the self-awareness to realize you had acted like an asshole and felt bad and had fixed your bullshit so that you didn’t do the same thing to other people. It wouldn’t have fixed anything for me, or made the experience less hurtful, or even have made me resent you less/want anything to do with you. But it would make me feel like something that was wrong in the world was at least a bit more towards right again, even if it didn’t actually effect my life in any way. I mean, I have no idea what this guy is like so I guess it is possible you stuck a knife in his heart or something, but I think the odds are way higher that he read it, thought “well, that’s good,” felt like the world was a slightly safer place, and then got on with his life.

    And congratulations on finding your new perspective: that shit is difficult, but when you do it, it is a little drop of decency in the world and those add up, for you and for everyone else. Don’t dwell too much on bad shit you did or how it effected him; everyone fucks up and hurts people. Realizing what you were doing and learning from it, putting that lesson into action by not needlessly kicking people in the balls in the future is enough. Really, it is.

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