#1263: “I apologized and it made everything weirder. What’s really going on?”

Dear Captain,

I’ve looked in the archives for something like this, but I couldn’t find anything. What do you do when you apologize and it seems to upset someone even more?

I (she/her) have an ex (he/him), and we have recently reconnected after a breakup and period of no contact and are trying to be friends. He was the one who ended the relationship, if that helps, and I was the person who asked for space, and recently reached out. We broke up mostly because he wasn’t the best communicator, and when I brought it up he said it was easier to break up. (He is a Geek Social Fallacies carrier)

I live in an area under shelter-in-place, and after that started he started texting and messaging more frequently, and then occasional phone calls. I wasn’t sure I wanted this much contact, but was feeling a little lonely with the SIP, and figured he was as well, we could support each other a bit. I have a wide ranging circle of friends that I have been virtually in contact with, I wasn’t focusing on him.

Anyway, we were talking about what we’d been doing since the SIP began, and I mentioned I’d been working on my writing, and he expressed interest in it, and I asked if he’d be willing to give me some feedback. This wasn’t unusual, it had been something he’d done for me when we’d been together. So I emailed it to him, he emailed some feedback (which was good feedback!), and I got caught up thinking about it and how the writing worked with his feedback, and I guess I hadn’t responded or said thank you, quickly enough? Because a few hours after receiving it he texted to ask if I’d gotten it. And I realized I hadn’t acknowledged it, apologized and thanked him.

And then a few days later I asked if he would read over an article I’m working on, and he said yes. He read it and sent me feedback a day or so later, but I was caught up in work when the email arrived (SIP and working virtually means I get SO MUCH MORE EMAIL than usual, and I got a lot before!), and I just didn’t get a chance to respond. Partially because I felt that he deserved more than a, “thanks, got it” email.

But the next morning beforeI got a chance to do this I got a text saying it was “weird,” I hadn’t acknowledged his messages. I emailed back, apologized, and thanked him. He then asked if we could have a phone conversation, which we did that evening.

Prior to our phone conversation, I realized he was probably feeling unappreciated, and made a point of acknowledging that when we talked, and said that he was also probably trying to show that he cared for me by doing me a favor, and that was really nice, and when I didn’t respond quickly enough he felt ignored or rejected or vulnerable.

And by saying that, he seemed to get really annoyed. Claimed I must be feeling resentment for our breakup, and that it wasn’t any “psychobabble” about feeling vulnerable or rejected, he’s obligated to help out any friend that asks for help. And ranted in this general vein at me for a bit. While also saying, as he ranted, that we didn’t have to have this “whole talk” about this, but he…kept talking? And talking, and talking. I tried to acknowledge his feelings, but I also didn’t want to keep discussing it, and basically listened until he wore down.

We ended it with him feeling better, I guess? But I felt worse. More so because I felt like I was trying to give a sincere apology and recognize his feelings and then we could move on, but it turned into him becoming more annoyed, and that line about being “obligated” really hurt, I thought he was just being friendly, but it now that gesture feels tainted somehow.

Captain, I don’t think it would be helpful to talk to him about this, I think I have to accept that this is just my friendship with him. But I’m confused, why did he get so annoyed? Is there a way I could have apologized better?

Confused Navigator

Dear Confused Navigator,

You said the one thing that you need to hear at the end of your letter. I love it when that happens. You are so smart about what you need and about what is happening.

“I don’t think it would be helpful to talk to him about this, I think I have to accept that this is just my friendship with him.”


If that’s the case, my question is, are you enjoying this friendship this way? Is it making you happy? Or were you happier when you weren’t expected to respond immediately and effusively to every communication from this guy, when you weren’t getting ranted at on the phone, having all his feelings dumped on you at length (in rant form), and weren’t being told what your feelings are or having them dismissed as “psychobabble”?

I think you apologized fine. Probably there is residual weirdness between you that combined with pandemic weirdness and made a weirdness volcano into your phone that night. (I think this same thing is happening to lots of people right now, excess weird feelings spawning like botched sourdough starter and erupting all over everything with an incredibly mixed bag of results, and we can be both gentle and forgiving and also limit how much breadfail and feelingsyeast we spread into the world or sign up to have sent our way).

I don’t know why your ex is like this, if I could ask him I’d wonder, did he want to give you feedback on your work for you or was it for him, a way to have attention and feel important to you? That’s not a sign he’s a bad person, by the way, just, it’s information about how self-aware he is about his actions.“This seemed like a safe, normal, familiar way for us to relate and try to rebuild a friendship, and I wanted to do something nice” = perfectly reasonable and understandable. The expectation of an immediate response and the subsequent ranting, however…I don’t know, it reads to me like he was putting way more energy into this whole thing than you were and realizing that hurt and he took it out on you.

Going forward, should you want more feedback from him on any writing (a big “if”), now you know that he would likely appreciate immediate acknowledgement of any feedback he offers – even if it’s a quick “Thanks, got it, I’ll dig into it later” response. That is a thing you can control about your own actions. I’d be interested to see if that fixes the problem in the future (maybe you can be friends) or if he repeats the hostile behavior (abort!)

Another thing within your control: If there is a next time, where you end up on the phone with this guy ranting into your ear in a way you don’t like, get off the phone. “Oh, hey, sorry, but that’s all the time I have.” “My timer just went off, I need to hang up.” “Listen, you’re basically ranting at me right now, I don’t have the energy for this. I’m sorry, thank you, good night.” “I don’t want to fight with you so I am going to hang up. Good night!” End the call. Then turn off your phone and put it in a drawer for a while and do something absorbing and nice for yourself so you’re not tempted to get into a texting discussion.

Will he think it’s rude/mean/ungrateful if you do this? Probably? But if we’re breaking patterns, the one where you just let him talk it out at you is a good one to break. You’re not dating anymore, you don’t have to resolve the issues of your partnership anymore, y’all resolved it by ending things, you are broken up. I am friends with many, many exes. One thing they all have in common is that once we broke up we stopped fighting and the things we liked about each other could just live free of our insurmountable incompatibilities and unsolvable problems.

There was a reason you broke up: Your ex was not a great communicator. Did that change? (No). Whether you decide to keep trying with a friendship or not, I would assume a baseline level of awkwardness with this guy, and I would not assume it’s all because of you.