Several years ago, I did something I have regretted nearly every day since. My ex-husband and I separated for the first time, and I was filled with grief and rage that nothing I had tried to do to keep our marriage together was working. He had some extreme personality disorders, and I decided that his parents must be to blame for them.
I had never been particularly close to his mother, and acted on an impulse I had always had to tell her off. I wrote her a horrible, nasty email blaming her and the rest of the family for the downfall of our marriage, deliberately choosing the most hurtful words possible to really get my point across. These words came from the darkest place in my heart, and to this day, they shock me.
I assumed I would never have to see her again and that letting her have it would feel good. I was wrong on both counts. Her son and I reconciled for about a year before finally divorcing, and the few times I saw her between separations was extremely awkward. While I immediately regretted what I did, I felt justified in it and refused to acknowledge how much I had hurt her. I said I was sorry, but she could tell it wasn’t sincere and from then on, it was just easier to avoid her.
It Didn’t Solve a Thing
I thought that dumping emotional garbage on someone would make things better, but I was wrong. Not only was my former mother-in-law deeply hurt, but also I lived with such guilt that it was hard for me to move forward in life. I changed a lot after my divorce, and became a better person in many ways, but knowing how cruelly and unfairly I had treated another human being weighed heavily on me. It was especially difficult because I didn’t know how to make it right and I assumed she would never forgive me.
I Finally Understood
About six months ago, it finally dawned on me how empty my efforts at apologizing must have seemed. It really didn’t matter what her son did to me or how I felt my ex mother-in-law had also wronged me in the past. None of it excused what I did, and I had to own that to her directly. I also had to truly feel the emotional anguish that I had caused her with my horrible words. It was then that I could finally apologize and truly mean it, and to my surprise, my ex-husband’s mother was open to reconciliation.
Actions Must Change for the Words to Mean Anything
One of the things that I lashed out at my former mother-in-law with was accusing her of being a terrible grandmother to the two daughters I have with her son. Although I still don’t understand her way of relating to people, I know she does care about the girls and I make an effort to include her in their events whenever possible. She has been to a few school events since my ex and I split up, and it has been a much more pleasant experience for both of us since I sincerely apologized.
What can you do if your actions have damaged a relationship seemingly beyond repair? First, search your heart and acknowledge what you have done with no excuses or rationalization for it. The idea behind offering an apology is to take responsibility for your own behavior and the part it played in hurting someone else.
When you offer your apology, you should not have any expectations for how the other person should respond. If you are truly sorry, it is not dependent on whether your words are accepted or rejected. You should be doing it because it is the right thing to do, even if the person you offended never forgives you.
After you have spoken your peace, step back and let the other person absorb what you have said. You should never demand instant forgiveness, or imply any moral judgment if he or she struggles to forgive you. Give the one you have hurt plenty of time and space, and allow him or her to take the next step in repairing the relationship.
As I previously stated, when you have wounded someone deeply with your words or actions, just saying you are sorry is not enough. Your actions need to change as well. For example, if you always tried to one-up this person, make a concerted effort not to and ask for accountability if you do show signs of old behavior. If you stole money from someone or damaged their business reputation, the money must be repaid and you must correct what you have said about them to everyone you said it to.
True repentance means accepting responsibility for what you have done, changing your behavior, and making restitution towards those you have hurt. Even when you have done all of this, it is no guarantee that the other person will forgive you. It is important to let go and allow him or her that choice, realize you did everything you could and begin working on forgiving yourself.