Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Power of Apology

The letter reads like a laboratory experiment. If someone had set up an experiment to show the difference between receiving and not receiving an apology he could not have done better than the situation Hayley describes in a letter to Dr. Irene Levine. Link here.

Hayley was dating Dave. She had been introduced to him by his childhood friend, Liz, who was also Hayley's best friend. One night Liz announced that she was going to have sex with Dave.

Incredulous, Hayley chose to ignore the warning. That night Liz and Dave got very drunk and had sex. When Hayley learned of what had happened, she was devastated.

She stopped dating Dave but continued to be friends with Liz.

Here is the salient point. Dave apologized; Liz did not. Dave offered sincere and heartfelt apologies and Hayley managed to forgive him. They see each other as friends, but not intimately.

Liz refused to apologize. She blamed Dave, said he had taken advantage of her, and refused to take any responsibility for what had happened. She even tried to make Hayley feel guilty for talking to Dave, because of what Dave did to her.

Given the fact that Liz had announced her intention to have sex with Dave, Hayley was not inclined to accept her story.

For her part Liz blamed Hayley for not letting it go. Hayley was laboring under the belief that she can only achieve closure by hearing an apology from Liz. Liz has continued to refuse.

Obviously enough, Liz believes that her good character is completely invested in whether or not she is the kind of woman who would sleep with her best friend's boyfriend. By denying responsibility, she must feel that she is asserting that she is really a loyal friend.

Hayley has remained friends with Liz. The psychological fallout has been severe. In her words: "Since this happened, I have turned into a jealous, self-conscious, mistrusting person with friends and boyfriends alike. I began self-medicating with alcohol and got into bad situations."

Apology is a complicated ritual. If Hayley demands an apology and Liz then apologizes, the apology would lack sincerity. An apology must be offered freely; otherwise it is simply a way to shut up someone who is complaining too much.

Hayley wrote to Dr. Levine to ask how to handle the situation. Dr. Levine responded correctly that Liz has already shown her colors. She is faithless and fundamentally lacking in character. She conspired with Dave to betray Hayley.

If she cannot accept responsibility for her actions after eight months, then she probably never will. Dr. Levine added that it is not necessary to have closure before abandoning a friendship. She would resolve the problem by abandoning the friendship.

Friends who have sex with your boyfriend are not your friends.

When someone has wronged you, their apology, offered sincerely and freely, is the only real way to erase the pain of the trauma that they have inflicted. If they fail to apologize you will instinctively believe that you must have done something wrong. You, as Hayley, will be tormented by guilt, and and will try to soothe its pain with self-punishing behaviors.

And yet, isn't this what talk therapy has traditionally recommended for trauma victims? Didn't Freud recommend that trauma victims get in touch with their own guilt feelings for having unconsciously wished for it to have happened. And didn't he recommend psychological penance for those guilt feelings.

Hayley's experience belies that approach. She shows us that the ill-effects of trauma are decisively mitigated by an apology offered by the person who caused the injury. When that person has not or will not or cannot apologize, then you need to take matters into your own hands. Not by introspecting and doing penance for your sins, but by severing ties with that person.

Ending the friendship is less than optimal, but at times it is the best that can be done.

Keep in mind that what caused the greater part of the psychological damage was not the dual betrayal but the failure of a friend to apologize.

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