How to Ditch Shame: The Steps of Reparation

You’ve done something wrong. You’ve not been as good as you could be. You hurt someone you love, someone who deserves better from you. This person might be a parent, a sibling, a child, a friend, a partner, or a spouse. Whoever it is; where you were once trustworthy, you’re now unreliable. You were close, but now you’re distant. You were loved, but now there’s disgust. You want to do better, but you don’t know how. You’ve apologized, maybe a hundred times, but you can’t get past it. You know that your action, even though it was wrong, was not the whole story. There were precipitating factors. It’s complicated, you’d like to explain, but you can’t talk about it without sounding like you’re making excuses. You wish there were another way between groveling and pride. You’d like to learn from your mistakes without losing your dignity and voice.

There’s a way to repair what was damaged.

What you’ve got to do is ditch shame.

I know, you’re afraid that if you don’t feel ashamed you’ll go back to doing whatever you did.

It’s not shame you need. You need guilt. Guilt addresses what you’ve done. Shame indicts who you are. Guilt makes you seek repair and pursue change. Shame makes you want to hide.

Shame says you’re a hopeless loser, a chronic relapser, a dog who’ll turn back and eat his own vomit. Shame says you’ll never stop doing what you’re doing. Shame says there’s no way out; guilt shows you the way. Guilt makes you think of the people you victimized; shame makes you think of yourself. Shame keeps you from trying, guilt urges you to admit your mistakes and make restitution.

Shame says you’ve always been like this, you’ll never change. You’ve done the things you’ve done because that’s the way you are. Guilt says you’re better than that, you can do things differently; the way you’ve always been is not the same as the way you’ll be. Guilt points to the future; shame keeps you stuck in the past.

Shame says you don’t deserve forgiveness. Sure, if you fail to follow guilt and listen to shame, then you won’t admit your wrongs, make repair, and change. If all you do is blame others, wait for others, feel sorry, or even, occasionally say you’re sorry without changing anything; that wouldn’t be deserving of forgiveness. On the other hand, if you accept responsibility, acknowledge the harm, make amends, and come out of it a different person, then that is deserving of forgiveness.

You may say you’ll never be forgiven. The person you harmed will never let go of the harm you caused. They will hold it against you forever. If you’re thinking that, those thoughts do not come from shame or guilt, they are just thoughts. They may be true. Past a certain point, forgiveness is out of your control. If you have done everything deserving of forgiveness and the person you harmed does not forgive you, then that’s on them. Maybe they just aren’t there yet. Maybe they’ll never be. We don’t know. We’ll never know if you don’t put yourself in the position to make it happen.

So, if shame makes you want to hide, blame others, or castigate yourself, what does guilt want you to do?

Guilt has a program designed to help you address the thing you did wrong.

  1. Admit the exact nature of the wrong.
  2. Acknowledge the effects that sprang from your wrong.
  3. Be willing to make appropriate amends.
  4. Follow through with making amends.
  5. Permit the change that results in taking these steps to settle in and become part of you.

So, how do you ditch shame? What makes shame go away?

You think shame will stick around while you do all that? If you listen to guilt, you won’t have to ditch shame; shame will ditch you.

Now I’m going to talk about an essential part of the process of going from wrong to reconciliation, a part that many people, incredibly, try to pass over. What is this indispensable but neglected component?

Identifying what you did wrong.

People often want to pass right over this part to get to forgiveness, to argue their case, or to go right back to doing it again. Others disregard identifying what they did wrong and, instead, heap punishment on themselves for how they are wrong, without any recognition of what they did. This trick of shame keeps them stuck and miserable while insuring that they’ll learn nothing from the mistake and go right back to doing it again, remaining under the thumb of shame. Guilt, on the other hand, demands that you identify the exact nature of the wrong.

So, let’s get started.

Before you go to anyone to make an apology, you should first take a few minutes, or a few days, to sit down and write a statement of responsibility. This doesn’t need to be long, but it does need to be thorough and accurate. It also needs to be written, not because you’re necessarily going to have anyone read it, but because you’ll take more time and more care for something you write than something you just say or ponder. You’ll also have fewer distractions, so you don’t get caught up in defending yourself, responding to someone’s reaction, or otherwise losing track of what you set out to do. You’ll also come away with a written record of your accomplishment, indisputable documentation that you got real and honest, if only with yourself. Don’t let a tendency to make spelling or grammar errors stop you. It doesn’t matter if your handwriting is bad; no one else in the world needs to read it. You’re doing this for you.

Let me give you an example, first, of how NOT to write a statement of responsibility, then how to do it correctly. What follows is something someone might write on their first attempt. This is from a man who beat his child and, years later, wrote a letter to her, in an attempt to reconcile. Please note, it’s not necessary to address your letter of responsibility to the person you hurt, as he does, nor is it necessary to give it to them. We’ll talk more about that later.

He wrote:

“I’m sorry I hit you, but you were a bad kid, you never listened and I was afraid that you’d grow up not having any respect for authority. My father used to hit us worse than that and it installed discipline in me so that I was able to be successful in everything I did. I wanted that for you. I love you.”

There’s so much wrong with this statement, it’s hard to know where to start. If you were ever on the receiving end of an apology like that, the only reason you would ever grant forgiveness is because you found it too frustrating or embarrassing to continue, so you just wanted the process to stop. I suppose if the writer had never acknowledged that he hit his child, it would be progress; but I think he can do a lot better than that before moving on.

Let’s start at the beginning.

“I’m sorry.”
It’s not necessary in a statement of responsibility to apologize. Your focus at this point should be to identify your behavior, not state your feelings. You can certainly say you’re sorry later on, if you really feel that way, after you have stated what you need to be sorry for. Incidentally, I don’t think this guy really is sorry for hitting his child; I think he’s sorry he has to write a statement of responsibility.

“I hit you.”
This is the best part of this man’s statement. He’s describing the offending behavior. It might be better if he gave more detail; if he said, for instance, whether he punched her in the face or spanked her on her bottom. If he gave that kind of detail, there certainly would be a clearer picture of the offense. He would not be hiding behind vagueness and obfuscation.

“But.”
This word should not appear anywhere in a statement of responsibility. Avoids buts. Buts produce bullshit. Anything that comes after a but in a statement of responsibility should be flushed out of sight.

There may well be mitigating factors: you may well have had good intentions; you definitely had your reasons for doing what you did. However, a statement of responsibility is not the place for excuses. It’s the place for a clear-eyed acknowledgement of the offense.

“You were a bad kid, you never listened.”
Here the man totally abandoned the project of making a statement of responsibility in favor of making an accusation. He turned the victim into the offender and himself into the victim. He’s playing the victim in a bald-faced attempt to garner sympathy or to weasel out of the wrongdoing.

Of course, there is a context surrounding every misdeed. You may be right to want to address the crimes committed against you, too; but this is not the place for that. The statement of responsibility is the place to focus on your actions. You can hope that, in doing so, you’d be modeling the type of forthrightness that you would hope from anyone admitting offenses against you.

Besides, just as your crime was a response to their crime, their crime may have been a response to another one of yours. The victim in this example may have been a “bad kid” who “never listened”; but, how did she get that way? I think it’s reasonable to believe that, before this guy ever hit his child, he was given to yelling. What happens when a father yells at his daughter? She doesn’t have to work too hard to listen.

“I was afraid that you’d grow up not having any respect for authority.”
Here this man is stating the intention he had for doing what he did. You could look at this two ways. On one hand, there’s a place for confessing his fears and talking about his aspirations for his daughter. On the other hand, when people explain their intentions, they seldom fail to put some spin on it. It’s always good intentions they disclose. We might believe the road to hell is paved with good intentions because no one ever mentions the bad ones. I think that if this man dug deep, he might come up with other intentions. He might say, for instance, “I was afraid I was losing my authority and you had no respect for me. I decided that if you weren’t going to respect me, I could at least make you fear me.”

When you complete the first draft of your statement of responsibility, you should be suspect of anything that puts you in a positive light. Look closer at your motives. I’m not saying this because I believe you’re a total dirt bag, incapable of doing anything good, or even, anything bad for a good reason. I’m saying it because I know that good intentions are what comes to the surface; selfishness hides within. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll find that a lot of things motivate you, and not all of them are pretty.

If you ever deliver your statement of responsibility, if you ever stand up and say it to the person you hurt, anything positive is going to sound like an excuse. They’re not going to believe you’re serious about your remorse and may conclude that you’re doing it for show or other venal reasons.

“My father used to hit us worse than that and it installed discipline in me so that I was able to be successful in everything I did. I want that for you.”
I’d advise that this man imagine that he’s a little boy again, his daughter’s age. Visualize what it was like to be beaten when he was small, powerless, and utterly at the mercy of his attacker. I suspect he doesn’t allow himself to go there. Instead, he’s constructed a belief that it wasn’t so bad and it was for his own good. This is what victims do to cope. It’s a form of denial. While it’s definitely possible for trauma to be used for growth, this is how people who’ve been abused grow up to be abusers. This first step is to forget the horror of it. The second step is to make yourself believe it was good. From there, it’s easy to start abusing your own child. Traumatic growth does not happen when we forget; it happens when we remember.

If this man believes discipline has been so successfully install in himself; he should ask himself whether he was really disciplined when he beat his daughter. I suspect not. I suspect he had lost control of himself and was utterly undisciplined. If this man believes he’s successful in everything he has done, why does he need to reconcile with his daughter?

“I love you.”
Here the man is making an incongruous claim, totally at odds with the rest of his statement. He beats his child, calls her a bad kid, expects that she was going to grow up to be a monster, criticizes her for not doing as well as he, and then wants her to believe that he loves her. Is this what love means to him?

Something’s missing
Wait, there are more problems with this statement of responsibility. It’s missing an account of the aftermath. After this man beat his child, what did he do then? Did he recognize he did something wrong and try to repair the damage to their relationship? Did he nurse her wounds, tenderly dry her tears, hug her, tell her he was wrong, and immediately apologize? Or did he leave her by herself, pretend it didn’t happen, deny it happened, lie, or force her to lie? Did he keep her home from school the next day out of fear the teacher would see the bruises on her face and start asking questions? What did he tell her mother? Did he say he would beat her more if she ever told anyone? Did he even need to?

After working with hundreds, if not thousands, of trauma survivors, I’ve learned that it’s what happens in the aftermath of an offense that does as much damage, if not more, than the wrong itself. It’s not the crime; it’s the coverup. The crimes of the coverup get charged to the initial offense because, if not for the crime, the coverup would never have existed; but there is a huge difference between a misdeed committed within the context of a loving, supportive, affirming environment and one which blames the victim and casts her out on her own.

Neglect, abandonment, and betrayal are more to be feared than actual abuse. Think about it. What would you rather get: a single slap in the face, or a lie? A single beating, followed by remorse; or an ongoing terror threat? A wife who slipped and slept with someone, confessing immediately thereafter; or a wife with a double life? Even in the cases of the single slap, single beating, or single slip, a lot of the damage comes from the prospect of more, the possibility of a total dissolution of the relationship, the fear of being alone.

An improved statement of responsibility
So, what would a better statement look like? A statement of responsibility this man might write after a course of therapy and an honest look inside might look something like this.

“When you were ten years old and I was a full grown man, I lost my temper and made a fist and hit you three times in the face with all the force I could. I then sent you to your room. Later, I told your mother you fell and hit the coffee table. I went on for years and pretended it didn’t happen until you brought it up. You didn’t deserve that kind of treatment. I was afraid I was losing my authority and you had no respect for me. I decided that, if you weren’t going to respect me, I could, at least make you fear me. I should have known better. I was beaten as a child, too. I should’ve remembered what that was like and not bought into the lies that it was a good thing. I failed to love you like I should and want to learn to love you better.”

Oh, another thing
What we have have now is an improved statement of responsibility. But it could be better if the man looked at the incident from the eyes of his child and acknowledged a wrong he might not have thought of himself. A broken promise.

Embedded in every wrong is a broken promise; a promise either declared or implied, clearly pledged or vaguely expected, guaranteed or merely hoped for. Sometimes a broken promise is the only wrong. Sometimes that one wrong is enough.

Adultery, for instance, is a broken promise. When your husband finds out you’ve been having an affair, you may actually be surprised that he cares about those vows you made so long ago. You might not think they’re so germane or vital. After all, you’re the one who broke them. The person who breaks a promise is the one who hasn’t been taking the promise as seriously.

Some promises were made so long ago, and there have been so many changes, you might think they’ve been revised. When you made your weddings vows, you might have been very young; things might’ve been very different, then. Your husband couldn’t keep his hands off you, he didn’t have that belly, he had some hair, you were both poorer, but his career was just taking off. Now, he’s been passed over for promotion four times, grown balder and fatter, and you haven’t had sex in three months. You might think you’re the victim of a bait and switch scheme. You may think that he broke the vows first by becoming a fat, bald middle manager who hasn’t gone down on you in years. You acted as though the deal was null and void.

If you really felt that way, then it’s better to say something than to just act as though the promise no longer applies. Sit down and say, “You’re fat, bald, and boring, and I’m horny and need someone with more money. I want a divorce.” I know, you wouldn’t do that. You’d feel like a witch. Is it better to protect his feelings, say nothing, and have an affair?

Many promises are made in haste because you didn’t want to talk. You agreed to clean out the garage that weekend because you didn’t want to have to tell your wife you had plans to play golf. She’s already pissed that you play so much golf and you didn’t want to have that fight again when she asked you to clean out the garage. So, you made a promise and deferred the fight to Saturday morning when your buddy was in the driveway and you’re loading your clubs. When you get home, there’s going to be hell to pay, not just because you didn’t clean out the garage; but because you broke a promise made in haste.

If you’re not sure whether you broke a promise, just ask yourself if you’ve been getting a lot of nagging. The presence of nagging is a constant irritation that obscures, but indicates, a broken promise. If she’s on your back all the time to clean out the garage, it’s not because she’s a nag, a shrew, a hypercritical, impossible-to-please, woman; but because you promised to clean out the garage and didn’t.

There are some promises that you’re held to, even though you never explicitly made them. This promise is assumed when you take on a role. When you climb into your car and drive down the highway, for instance, you don’t raise your right hand and swear to drive considerately, to give others space to stop, to go promptly when the light turns green, and to signal your turns; but you should hear the reactions from others if you fail to do so. They have a reasonable expectation that you will drive as if you have your life in your hands, and theirs, too.

Fatherhood is another example of an assumed promise. You never signed on the dotted line to become a father, you never stood up and recited vows; but the child and the mother of your child have some reasonable expectations of you. At the minimum, you owe child support, assistance in rearing, love and concern, and an assurance of safety.

In all those cases, you are held to a promise you never made because it is inherent in the role you took. Others have a reasonable expectation of you. What, then should you do in cases when the expectations of others are unreasonable?

Your husband expects you to drop everything, wait on him hand and foot, constantly be at his beck and call because that’s what his mother did for his father. You never promised to be that kind of wife. In this day and age, he shouldn’t expect that kind of wife. He shouldn’t be angry that you don’t have dinner on the table at exactly six o’clock when you don’t get home until 5:30, after a long day’s work. He shouldn’t be angry, but he is.

In this case, it was his mother who made the promise for you. It’s not fair; it won’t hold up as a contractual obligation in court; but his mother’s promise is something you’re going to have to contend with. You’re going to have to acknowledge that you broke the promise his mother made on your behalf, if you’re ever going to reconcile your differences.

You see, there are objective wrongs and subjective ones. The objective wrongs are those that everyone recognizes. Subjective wrongs rest in the feelings of the person who regards himself as the victim, as your husband does in this case. They look unreasonable, they sound whiney, you believe the supposed victim is just being a big baby, you could accuse him of playing the victim; but, to the person who has the expectations, they’re very real.

What should you do when there are unreasonable expectations? Do you have to apologize? Is this something for which you have to make amends?

In a just world, it would be his mother apologizing and making amends to you for setting you up to fail; but you can’t wait for justice if you want reconciliation. No, you’re not to blame for failing to meet unreasonable expectations, but you are responsible; responsible in the sense that you are able to respond.

What is the best response to an unreasonable expectation?

“No.”

That’s it. You have to say no, and follow it up with actions, like you mean it. If you haven’t said no, or have said no ambiguously, then it’s reasonable to assume you have accepted the expectation. Maybe that’s what you have to apologize for: not saying no.

Why don’t people say no when they need to? It’s hard to say no. Saying no involves being honest and inviting conflict. It puts the relationship at risk. But not saying no is the same as making a promise you can’t keep.

So, if you have looked within and found a broken promise to add to the other wrongs you have committed, then you probably have found even more misdeeds: a failure to be honest and an avoidance of conflict.

Once you have written your statement of responsibility, you’re ready for the next step: imagining the effects of your actions.

Don’t get hung up on expecting hard evidence that one thing was caused by another. We have hard evidence for some effects, but not others. We have hard evidence that, if if a man punches a child in the eye, the child will have a black eye; but we don’t have hard evidence that the reason she failed in school that semester was because of it. There could have been a connection, but there’s no way to prove it.

You can’t prove it, nor do you have to. This is not a court of law. You’re not treating cancer or building a highway or filing taxes, activities that require a higher level of certainty. You’re using your imagination. Just to entertain the possibility that one thing may have been caused by another is sufficient.

It’s also not necessary to say that your action, whether it was violence or addiction, cheating or lying, nagging or criticizing, was the only ingredient that led to a particular reaction. No one is saying you are to blame for everything. There’s obviously lots of reasons why things happen. Generally it’s a confluence of factors. A child may fail a semester of school for reasons besides the fact that she was getting beat up at home. She could have had a bad teacher, disruptive classmates, or any one of a number of other factors. She probably had a lot to do with the failing grades.

So, if you are willing to entertain possibilities that the things you do matter, then consider the following questions with respect to the thing you did, whatever it was.

Physical
What physical changes did you see in the person you hurt? Where there bruises, contusions, broken bones. Did the person get sick? Was there an alteration in consciousness?

Emotional
What emotions did you observe in the person after you hurt him? Anger, annoyance, contempt, disgust, irritation, embarrassment, fear, helplessness, powerlessness, worry, doubt, frustration, guilt, shame, despair, disappointment, hurt, or sadness? Was there a fight or flight response? Did he freeze?

Mental
Did the person develop a mental condition after the thing you did? Chronic anxiety, worry, panic attacks? Depression, despair, suicidality? Can she pay attention? Is memory impaired? Was there post traumatic stress? Nightmares, flashbacks, irritability? Did you start to see more bottles of pills? Did he go out and buy a gun? Did she start to hallucinate?

Economic
How did the person’s economic status change? Could he pay his bills after that thing you did? Were his savings towards retirement set back? Did he miss days of work? What was the dollar and cents cost to the person for the thing you did?

Social
Did that thing cost the person any friends? Did family members shun him? Where there things she wouldn’t be able to tell anyone? Did you get between him and the people he loves?

Addiction
Did the person start to drink harder than before? Did drugs come into her life? Did he seem to go through cigarettes faster, start guzzling coffee, eat herself out of house and home?

Recreation
Was there a change in how he engaged in recreation? Did she abandon hobbies or quit going to the gym? Did he stop going to the movies? Did she sign up for classes in martial arts?

Housing
Did the thing you did cost the person his hearth and home? Is her room more of a mess? Has his house fallen into disrepair? Does she now spend more time cleaning than is humanly necessary?

Spiritual
How has this changed your person’s view of God? Has she lost faith? Is the thing you did an example of evil and suffering in the world for which God gets the blame? Does he believe God to be mean and vindictive because that’s how you treated the person? Has she stopped going to church? Has he ceased studies for his bar mitzvah? Or, alternately, has she become more rigidly religious, more fundamentalist, more extreme in her behavior and beliefs? Is he now a Jihadist?

Relational
Finally, how has this person’s relationship with you changed? Can she trust you now? Is he always critical? Is she forever rolling her eyes? Is she interested in sex? Does he want to cuddle? Are you getting your calls returned, your texts answered? Are you still getting invited to parties? Did she place an order of protection? Are you getting a divorce?

This is, by no means, a complete list of all the questions you could ask or all the effects people have when you do awful things to them; but if you answered those questions honestly and owned up to the influence you have on others, then you have come a long way in accepting responsibility for your actions.

If you ever want to deny something, whether it’s something you did and don’t want to admit, or whether it’s something you never did and want to make that plain, there are six ways you can do it. Six tried and true methods of denial. However, just a word of caution; when you’re trying to deny something that really happened, none of them work.

Denial of Fact
The first way is the most obvious. You just don’t admit something happened. Look them in the eye and say you didn’t do it. You declare:

I never touched her. I was never near the place. I never said that. It’s all a big misunderstanding. I did not have sexual relations with that woman. I never lied, not a single time, ever.

Similar to the denial of fact, is minimization; denying some facts, but not others. You had two drinks, not seven. You went to the casino, but only gambled one hundred dollars, not five. You smoked, but never inhaled. You only kissed her. You’re telling the truth this time, honest.

If you truly never did the thing you’re accused of, then nothing beats denial of fact; why would you need any other method? But, if you are guilty, then denial of fact is a dangerous game. Facts can be discovered. Truth can be exposed. There are often witnesses. There’s GPS. Some disappointed Other Women have been known to come forth and contact the wife at home. Why, you might even slip up and forget which lie you told to whom and when. Moreover, you’re putting your sanity at risk. Watch out when you start to believe your own bald-faced lies. You won’t know the difference between up and down.

The other problem with denial of fact is that it’s often misdirected. It’s not the fact in question that’s the real question. It often doesn’t matter whether you had seven drinks or two; touched her or didn’t touch her; said something or didn’t say it; inhaled, told the truth, gambled, or whatever. The real question, a question that is seldom asked, but always present, is: can you be trusted? Facts don’t settle issues of trust. It doesn’t matter whether you can marshal documents, witnesses, or evidence to support your case; if he doesn’t trust you, then he doesn’t trust you.

If you have a loved one who has lost trust in you, then there’s only a few things you can do about it. You can leave, or wait for the other person to leave, because, if there is no trust, then what’s the point of the relationship? You can be patient and wait for your loved one to forget she lost trust in you, like that’s ever going to happen. Or you can be honest and tell him everything.

When you’re honest about something you did, then at least you’re being honest. She may not like what you are admitting, but at least you’re honest about it.

If you do get caught in denial of fact, then you have five more methods of denial at your disposal.

Denial of Responsibility
I did it, but it’s not my fault. She wouldn’t take no for an answer. They kept pressuring me. There were a lot of factors. It was going to happen anyway. I have a disease, an addiction, a weakness to temptation, I was pressured. I’m the victim, here; why are you yelling at me? It’s my wife’s fault I cheated on her. If my husband didn’t nag so much I wouldn’t need to drink so much. I didn’t mean to do it. I was trying to win enough money to pay the rent. I have to drink so much because of my anxiety. I didn’t go to work because of my depression. The devil made me do it. Mistakes were made.

When you use denial of responsibility, you admit the fact of the misdeed, but not the intention. You profess you’re not the agent of change. You claim you did not have free will.

This is a good place for denial to hide. It’s almost impossible for someone to prove an intention. You’re the only one who knows what you intended. But, what did you intend? Can you really, honestly say that you never planned the misdeed or allowed it to happen? Does it really matter if you intended it or not?

Lots of things happen that are not your intention. You could be a kind, considerate, mindful, pacifistic, vegan, but, on your way to yoga class, you could run over a squirrel. The squirrel would die a slow, excruciating death; its family would mourn, but you didn’t mean to do it. Then, you get to class and you realize there was a meditation exercise you forgot to do. You didn’t mean to forget, but you still promised to do it and failed to follow through. Then your teacher says your check for the classes bounced. You look at your checkbook and find a simple subtraction error. Again, you didn’t intend on stiffing the guru, but you still have to pay the fees. Class begins. You’re all doing the downward dog and out comes a massive fart. Everyone knows it was you. You apologize, but it’s not like you meant to stink up the place.

It doesn’t take long before using denial of responsibility makes you look like you have no will of your own. Is that what you want? Is it better to be flaky or forthright? Slippery or scrupulous? In bad faith or a bad ass? Your choice.

Denial of Awareness
I didn’t know what happened. It all happened so fast. I don’t remember. I’m not sure. I just lost track of time. Things got away from me. I must have blacked out. I overslept. I have ADD. It just slipped out. I didn’t know you cared about that.

When you use denial of awareness, you are still trying to evade responsibility by saying the deed was out of your conscious control. The vegan didn’t see the squirrel he hit. He didn’t write down the homework assignment. He hadn’t balanced his checkbook in a long time. The fart snuck up on him.

Denial of awareness just kicks the can down the road a little way. Even if it’s true that you didn’t know what you were doing, you’re still responsible for not knowing what you’re doing. It’s your mind, so it’s up to you to use it. Even if you’re not held responsible for what you do when you are drunk, asleep, or unaware; you are still responsible for being drunk, asleep, or unaware and you have to accept the consequences that come with it.

Denial of Impact
No harm was done. What’s it to you? Why do you care? I’m just hurting myself. It doesn’t need to be that big a deal. Everyone does it. There’s no victim. Yeah, I ate some of the cake you baked for someone’s birthday, but there’s plenty left. This hurts me more than it hurts you. It’s my body… money… house…life…etc, so I can do what I want with it.

In this case, you are admitting you did the deed, but there was no injury and no basis of complaint. You committed a victimless crime. The tree fell in the forest, but it didn’t hit anyone.

Have you really carefully examined the effects of your actions? Are you listening to what people are saying about what you have done to them?

Let’s take the woman who was raised by alcoholics. You’re her husband. Things were awful when she was growing up because of the drinking. There were fights to dodge, puke to clean up, smaller siblings to watch when she’d rather just be a kid. She couldn’t wait to leave home and be done with it all. Then she gets married to you. You drink. No, you don’t drink too much; you don’t fight, don’t puke, and you don’t even have kids to neglect. In fact, you never drink more than two beers in a row. You could stop anytime you want, if you had a good reason to do so. Your drinking causes absolutely no problems, except one. She gets uptight every time she sees a beer in your hand.

Does your drinking have an impact?

Of course it does. It’s a simple case of cause and effect. She sees the beer and she gets uptight. It’s true that, perhaps, she is reacting more to the events of the past than what is likely to happen now; but your beer is triggering her. Her parents loaded the gun, but you pull the trigger. It’s true that, perhaps, she is being unfair to ask you to not drink because of her; but, if you love her, isn’t it enough to abstain because it makes her crazy? It’s true that it might be better for her to deal with her past. You could even make an argument that seeing you drink responsibly could help her be less reactionary to alcohol, sort of like exposure therapy. All that could be so; but, please call it as it is. That beer is having a detrimental impact.

The purpose of cutting through denial, in all its forms, is not to humiliate, or blame, or make you responsible for everything. The purpose is to sweep away all of the complications, so you can see things as they are.

Denial of Pattern
It just happened. No one could’ve seen it coming. I didn’t set myself up. I didn’t prepare myself. I didn’t groom my victims. I didn’t know I was going to do it until I did it. I go from zero to sixty before I know it. One minute, I’m in recovery; the next minute, I’m looking for drugs. I was just going to get water when I went into the bar. I don’t have to change people, places, and things; I just have to stop using.

Nothing happens by itself. Every event is part of a pattern. There is always a context. No one goes from zero, directly to sixty, without going through all the steps between. There is always a pattern. You can be excused if you don’t know it; but are you looking for it?

Patterns can be hard to distinguish if you’re not paying attention. It’s possible to think you see a false pattern, but that doesn’t mean there’s isn’t a pattern. Detecting a true pattern can be a tremendous benefit. It informs you of warning signs. It gives you a chance to get a jump on things. It lets you intervene on a problem before it gets too big. But, to detect a pattern, you have to be open minded about what it might be.

People often want to deny a pattern because, if they were to acknowledge it, that would mean they may have to give up some things that, by themselves, are not a problem. Take the woman who uses cocaine every time she goes to a particular bar. She admits that cocaine is a problem and wants to stop using it, but she likes the bar. The bar is cool, all of her friends are at the bar, and there is nothing bad about her drinking, except that, when she goes to the bar, she uses blow. If she were to admit there’s a pattern, she would have to admit that the bar is part of the problem.

Denial of the Need for Help
I can stop any time I want. I can do this on my own. I don’t need to go to group… a therapist… see a doctor… stay in rehab; all they want is my money. There’s nothing they can teach me. I’ve been there and learned it all, already. I’ve got to just do it. I don’t need to be punished; I’ll never do it again. I learned my lesson. I don’t need anyone on my case… on my back… being suspicious… reminding me of the past. I’ll stop, cold turkey.

To a certain extent, if you deny the need for help, I like your spirit. At least you sound like you’re taking responsibility for the solution to your problem. After all, even if you do accept help, it still comes down to you. You’ve got to want to change. You have to do it. No one is going to do it for you.

However, when you admit you did something wrong, but won’t get help for it, you’re placing a bet that you can handle it all by yourself. That’s great, if you can; maybe you will. But what are you betting? What exactly is on the line? Is your husband threatening to leave? Are you giving your wife black eyes? Are you squandering your children’s future? Are you breaking your parents’ hearts? Maybe you can deal with the consequences if you fail, but are you thinking about how a relapse will effect others? How does it sound to them, the people you have already harmed, when you say you’re going to gamble with doing it all again? Is this how you think you can make it right with them, by disregarding their feelings?

There’s another thing to think about when you decide whether or not to get help. Let’s say you have a shopping addiction. You’ve run up credit card bills. Every day a new package comes from Amazon with something you don’t need. You can’t even walk in the spare bedroom because of all the crap you put in there. Your husband wants you to go to Shopaholics Anonymous. No, you say, you don’t want to talk to strangers about your problem. You agree to cut up your credit cards. You let your husband change your Amazon password. You go for a run every time you get the urge to shop. You’ve got this. You don’t need any more help. But there’s just one thing.

Maybe it’s your husband who needs the help.

Maybe he can’t handle it on his own. Maybe he doesn’t know what to do. If you go to Shopaholics Anonymous, you’re helping him, too. That way, he doesn’t have to be the only one watching out for you. He’s got a village. He has others on the team who can be more objective. He doesn’t have to worry quite so much. He can trust you just a little bit more. It looks like you’re taking his concerns seriously.

Maybe your husband needs a group of his own for spouses of shopaholics. That’ll be good if such a thing exists, but it’s not a substitute for his need for you to get help for yourself.

So, six places where denial hides. Did you find any of yours there?

Don’t ever let anyone talk you out of feeling guilty about something you’ve done.

Even if what you did was not wrong, even if it was justified and every court in the land would agree; if you feel guilty, then OK, go ahead and accept it.

Guilt is a guide. You can’t travel in a foreign country, and expect not to get lost, without a guide of some sort; be it a live human, or a guidebook, or signs by the side of the road. Guilt is your guide towards self improvement, an usher that shows the way to reconciliation.

Nevertheless, you don’t travel just so you can meet a guide, stay with a guide, and look at nothing but the guide. No, you’re interested in what the guide shows you. So, when I say that guilt is a guide, I don’t mean you have to stay with guilt. I mean, look at what guilt is showing you. It’s showing you that you could have done something differently.

Once you have written your statement of responsibility, re-written it to take out the buts, recalled promises you might have broken, imagined the effect of your actions, and, the whole time, successfully beat off any of the six varieties of denial, you still have one more thing to do: identify what you could have done differently. There is always something.

Once you get started on identifying what you could have done differently, you might find the possibilities are endless. Within the life of any problem are multiple turning points in which a decision is made.

Take the guy who beat his daughter, for example. When he became so enraged that he thought it was a good idea to punch her in the face, he might have turned aside and counted to ten. But, even if he couldn’t; even if he got so overcome by rage that he felt he had no choice in the matter; even then, I’m sure it was not the first time anger appeared. He probably had dozens of incidents before that could have served as a warning, had he heeded them. Maybe those were the times he could have turned away and gotten help; or, at least, learned from his mistakes.

Identifying what you could have done differently helps you get your power back. It’s an acknowledgment that you matter and the things you do makes a difference. It demonstrates that you have choices.

If a man broke into your house, held a gun on your wife, swiped your silverware, and was getting ready to kidnap your children; then maybe you feel justified that you took his gun away and shot him. If that’s the case, then there’s no reason to be reading about reconciliation. But, if you do feel guilty for defending your family this way, ask yourself, what could you have done differently? Maybe you could have installed that security system so none of this would’ve happened.

There’s a special type of guilt called survivors’ guilt. That’s when you feel guilty that you survived. Accident survivors get it, witnesses of violence get it, combat veterans get it in spades, even people who have been victimized get it when they think about how much worse it could have been. People have a hard time understanding survivors’ guilt.

Well-meaning people might try to talk you out of feeling guilty if you have survivors’ guilt. They’ll say it wasn’t your fault, you had no choice, anyone would have done the same thing. They’ll counsel you to not get caught up in the what-ifs. They’ll warn you against 20–20 hindsight. They’ll call you a Monday morning quarterback. Resist them and look at what guilt is trying to show you. It’s trying to show that you’re not just a victim. The things you do, even the little things, have impact.

Making Amends is Better than Making Apologies
No one is interested in your apologies, unless you back them up with a change in behavior. Making amends repairs the damage; making apologies is only a promise to repair the damage. One is action; the other, words. One will cost you something; it might even bring about a transformation. The other is as cheap as spent air, blown out in such a way as to make noise with your lips. The word amends comes from the Middle French for reparation. The word apology comes from the Greek for justification. Let me ask you; when you’re hurt, what do you want more, reparation or justification?

I thought so. Save your apologies; work towards making amends.

Amends come in two categories. There’s direct restitution and there’s indirect. Amends, or restitution, compensates the victim for the harm done. If you’ve inflicted physical injury, then pay the medical bills. If you lied, then tell the truth. If you’ve robbed them of their time, give of your time. If you broke faith, keep faith. If you’ve said horrible words, even if they were true, say uplifting ones that are also true. If you’ve neglected, pay attention. If you lost your temper, acquire self discipline. If you frightened, protect. If you failed to keep your promises, don’t make promises you can’t keep; or, if you do make promises, keep them.

This is why I asked you to write a statement of responsibility and an account of how your actions harmed another. Look at every item and decide how you’re going to make restitution. Let’s take the father who punched his child in the face. He wrote in his statement of responsibility:

“When you were ten years old and I was a full grown man, I lost my temper and made a fist and hit you three times in the face with all the force I could. I then sent you to your room. Later, I told your mother you fell and hit the coffee table. I went on for years and pretended it didn’t happen until you brought it up. You didn’t deserve that kind of treatment. I was afraid I was losing my authority and you had no respect for me. I decided that, if you weren’t going to respect me, I could, at least make you fear me. I should have known better. I was beaten as a child, too. I should’ve remembered what that was like and not bought into the lies that it was a good thing. I failed to love you like I should and want to learn to love you better.”

How can this man make restitution? When he lost his temper, he failed to model self discipline to his daughter. To make restitution, he should show her self-discipline. Since he hit her and caused bruises, to make restitution he might apply ice to those bruises. Because he sent her to her room and isolated her, restitution would involve being available. When he lied to her mother he caused the child and her mother to not know what to believe. From now on, he needs to tell the truth to both of them. Where once he made her fear him, now he can protect her. When he forgot what it was like to be beaten, he should be upfront and honest about how he was a small child once, totally at the mercy of someone who used him as a punching bag.

All this, as hard as it might be, can easily be done if the harm has just recently occurred and his daughter is still small and the bruises have not faded. If years have gone by, as they have in this case, it’s going to be impossible to make much direct restitution. He can still model self-discipline, be available if she wants him around, tell the truth, protect her if there’s an opportunity, and be open about his experiences; but ice is not necessary, the damage to his child’s development is already done, and it’s too late to fix things now.

There are many situations in which direct amends are impossible. It could be too late. They could be unwanted. Some people you’ve hurt would rather not have anything to do with you. They may not feel safe around you. You might have an order of protection. The adult daughter in our example may very well have a distant relationship with the father who used to beat her and want to keep it that way. She’s not going to have him babysit his grandchildren if he’s shown that he cannot control his temper. If that’s the case, then the only direct amends he can make would be to accept the consequence gracefully and not whine and complain that he doesn’t have a grandchild to bounce on his knee.

You’ll want to be careful that, in your eagerness to be rid of your guilt or achieve reconciliation, you don’t cause more harm by attempting to make unwanted direct amends. Some victims don’t want to be reminded of what happened. The nightmares have finally stopped. They’ve only just moved on with their lives. Just the thought of you is enough to give them the shudders. In that event, it’s a profoundly selfish thing to show up at their door, unannounced, with flowers. Keep your flowers, then, along with your apologies; rather, give the flowers to someone else who could use them. That would be an example of indirect amends.

There are other cases in which the victim doesn’t know they’ve been victimized. For instance, I often see spouses who’ve been cheating on their partners. They believe their partner doesn’t know it. They fear that being honest about the affair will cause their spouse unnecessary anguish. It’s better, they say, to quietly end the affair and devote themselves to being a better partner than unburden themselves at the expense of the other.

It’s hard to know what to do in these cases. It’s true they can do a lot to be better husbands without confessing they’d strayed; but they can’t make amends for lying by continuing to hide the truth. Furthermore, I often suspect that the spouse knows more than anyone says. People have a sense that tells them there’s something wrong. Often they can’t put their finger on what, but they know something’s not right. On the other hand, sometimes people just don’t want to know. This is such a thorny problem, we may need another post to discuss it.

If you honestly find you cannot make all the direct amends you’re called to make, then full reconciliation will be impossible and you’re left with indirect amends. Maybe, some day, the opportunity will arise for that man to embrace his alienated daughter, do the right things by her, and bounce his grandchild on his knee. It’ll be a beautiful moment if he’s ready for it. He can prepare by enacting a program of indirect amends.

Making direct amends can be difficult, but necessary, when the harmed party is looking for it, and rewarding when you do it well. The payoff is reconciliation. But not everyone you have harmed is all set to forgive you. Some are gone, many don’t know they were harmed, and a lot don’t want anything to do with you. Maybe they’ve been waiting for you, but gave up. You might be the first on the scene. No one is ready for reconciliation at the precise moment you’re ready for it.

However, making amends isn’t just about making up to the victim for something you’ve done, it’s also the process of forgiving yourself. If you’re feeling guilty, then I think it’s safe to say that there was something in your conduct that didn’t square with your idea of yourself. You weren’t the best you could be. You were raised better than that; and, even if you weren’t, then you’ve always wanted to do better than your parents ever could. Making amends is not just about healing the relationship; it’s also about healing yourself. The guilty person feels broken. There’s a hole inside. Something’s gnawing at you that you want to stop.

A guilty person is apt to feel stymied when he finds his victim uninterested in or incapable of forgiveness. He may believe he can go no further. It’s true that you can’t make it to full reconciliation alone, but you can get as far as peace and acceptance. Peace and acceptance is a pretty nice place. You gain entry to peace and acceptance by making indirect amends.

Indirect amends involves taking all the things you cannot do for the victim and doing them for someone else. If restitution demands that you be there for your daughter, but she doesn’t want to see you, then be there for someone else. Become the kind of guy others can count on. If you gave up a child, either by abortion or adoption, and feel guilty about it, you cannot make direct amends; but there’s plenty of other people out there who need your support. If you were rude and ungrateful to your father and he died before you could show him you were sorry, then find someone else to be gracious to. If you know you harmed someone, but don’t even know or remember who it was, then you can hardly make direct amends to them; but you can spread bounty and goodwill to random people you come across.

Why would you be so nice to people you are not indebted to, who you don’t even know? You probably need the practice. You will run the risk of being one of those people who are great to everyone else, but nasty son-of-a-bitches to the people they love. That’s the problem with indirect amends and why they should be direct when possible.

If guilt is dogging your footsteps; if regret disturbs your peace, then you have a mission. Don’t ever let anyone talk you out of feeling guilty, but there’s no reason to wallow in guilt. Guilt is trying to show you something. Look at what it’s pointing out to you. The world is broken, you have something to do with that, and you can do something about it.

Once you have written your statement of responsibility for wronging someone, it’s time to put the show on the road. The essence of taking responsibility is to declare it to someone. It makes no sense to take responsibility in such a way that nobody hears it. When this particular tree falls in the forest, if no one is around, it makes no sound.

It is time to put your show on the road, but you’re not ready for the big time, yet. The big time would be to read it to the person you harmed; that’s the person who really matters. If you have a well prepared statement of responsibility, properly delivered to the person you harmed, it could lead to reconciliation. If your statement still needs work, if it is defective in any way, it may set your reconciliation back and do more damage to your relationship. Sometimes, you only get one shot. Once you have completed your statement of responsibility, read it out loud; not to the person you harmed, but to a person you trust. You’re ready for a dry run. Open your play in New Haven, before you put it on Broadway.

The person who hears your statement of responsibility should be a person who is capable of listening. Don’t pick that friend who can’t stop talking about herself or the one who never takes anything seriously. If you have someone who always feels he must solve every problem, tell him this is not a problem to be solved, it’s a story to be heard. Don’t pick the friend who never thinks you can do wrong, or the one who’s fed up with everything you do. Sit down with someone in the middle range between automatic approval and default disdain. You want someone who, when it is time for them to react, can be honest and forthright, not dodging and dissembling; about halfway between kind and cruel.

If you have a friend or relative who is like this, you can confess to her, but she should not be someone who’s involved. You don’t want to compound your error by putting this person in an awkward position with the one you’ve harmed. Don’t tell your wife’s sister you’ve been sleeping around; she may need to tell your wife. Your confessor should not be party to the crime, like the woman you’re having an affair with, or anyone who has an interest in the proceedings. It does you no good to confess your alcoholism to your favorite bartender, or your drug addiction to your drug dealer. It should be a neutral, third party. Someone who can be objective.

If you use clergy to hear your confession, you get the added bonus of getting someone who can put a good word in with your higher power, if you believe clergy can do that. They accept donations, but they will not send you a bill.

If you don’t have anyone in your circle like this, you might have to hire one. That’s where counselors come along. Any counselor with minimal training in listening can serve as your confessor; you don’t need a specialist or a highly paid Park Avenue shrink. Just be sure they know you’re hiring them to be objective and wise, not to co-sign your bullshit.

The purpose of verbalizing your statement of responsibility is manifold. You need to hear how it sounds. You’ll feel better once you get it off your chest. You’re very likely to find that people won’t think you’re as loathsome as you think you are. Talking about what you did dispels shame. It gets your guilt in gear. It’s a dress rehearsal for saying it to the person who most matters, the person you harmed.

The person you confess to may need a little direction. You might tell her that you don’t need her to make you feel better; only you can make you feel better, you and the process of atonement. If your confessor doesn’t back away slowly, without turning around, with a horrified look on his face, after you tell him what you did, then he’s doing well. She also needs to know that you’re going to see whatever look she has on her face; therefore, if she is nauseated, there’s no sense denying it. She will probably not be nauseated, though; or run screaming from the room. You are probably harder on yourself than anyone else will be.

Your confessor can be most useful as a bullshit detector. Have him listen for hidden justifications. Have her look for spin. Urge him to see what you don’t want to see and tell you what you don’t want to hear. Coax her to consider how your statement may be received by the person you harmed. This is where having an honest and forthright confessor is invaluable, someone who can tell you if you’re kidding yourself.

But, for all I’ve said about your confessor being a bullshit detector, his job is not to judge or to point out your flaws, but to be a mirror held up so you can see yourself. Think of her as someone you ask if spinach is caught in your teeth. You have to show her your teeth and, if you have some, she has to be truthful. But, mostly she’s someone who, when she tells you there’s no spinach there, will give you the confidence to smile.

No question about it, confess to yourself. If you can’t be honest with yourself, who can you be honest with?

If you believe in God, then confess to God. He knows anyway.

If you have a neutral third party you can trust, then confess to her. Confession is cleansing. It’s a double check for bullshit. It returns you to the land of the righteous.

The only time confession might be questionable is when your confession brings harm to the person you’ve already harmed.

The idea is that your confession should not be at the expense of the person you harmed and cause him to go through grief so you can feel better. That doesn’t seem to be the route to reconciliation. That road heads the wrong way. On the other hand, you’re cutting yourself off from a powerful source of healing, you are underestimating your victim’s capacity for grace, and you’re crawling even further in the dog house than you belong.

The question comes up most when one partner has had some extramarital sexual activity and feels guilty about it. He comes to me, his therapist, and tells me all about it. I’m the neutral third party he can trust. He asks me the question, “Do I tell my wife?”

Some therapists have answers to that question. I don’t. I just have more questions. Some therapists have firm opinions on what a marriage should be; they believe a marriage should be perfectly open and honest, and any marriage which is not is headed for trouble. I believe there are all kinds of successful marriages. I also believe being perfectly open and honest may be a quality to which to aspire, but it’s not a status to achieve. No one knows their partner fully and it may not be especially desirable if they did.

The question comes up in other cases, too. The rapist should probably not seek out his victim to tell her he’s sorry; he’s likely to be misunderstood. It may be too late for the father who beat his daughter to bring it up now. She may have no stomach to review the past.

Like I said, I have no answers. I only have questions. Questions like:
Are you reluctant to confess because you want to avoid the consequences?

Be careful how you answer this question.

If you say you are reluctant to confess because you want to avoid the consequences, then you are not serious about change. You’re just trying to get away with the thing you did. You’re not ready for a confession, anyway; it would just be worthless.

If you say you won’t tell her because she’ll call you a selfish prick, make you sleep on the couch, tell your mother what you did, and file for divorce, then grow some balls. You brought this on yourself. If you know now she’d react that way, you knew then. It was OK to risk your wife’s ire when you were sleeping with that other woman, why is it not OK, now? You wouldn’t walk out of a restaurant without paying; it’s time to pay up now.

On the other hand, if she’ll take a knife to your private parts or tell your children they’re worthless because they came from you, then you might have a good reason not to confess. If you somehow know that she’s going to hunt down the other woman and literally kill her, then I’d say, keep it to yourself. You have my blessing, but I will wonder why you would risk that reaction by sleeping with the other woman in the first place.

You should anticipate consequences and, to some degree, be fearful of them. To claim otherwise is nonsense. However, if you decide not to confess, you should not be tainted by your fear of the repercussions, except in the extremes I mentioned. Your decision should be motivated completely out of a realistic concern for your victim.

How can you be sure your decision not to confess is not prompted by your desire to avoid the repercussions? Easy, there should be repercussions, anyway. Even if you decide not to confess, you should still go ahead with making amends as if you did confess. These consequences, which you put on yourself, should be costly so that there’s no question that you decided not to confess because you were avoiding the aftermath.

What kind of relationship with you does your victim want to have?
If your victim has an order of protection out on you, then you know what kind of relationship he wants to have. He wants you to keep your distance. If he wants a confession out of you, he’ll ask for it.

What if there’s no order of protection? That was the case with the father and the daughter he abused when she was small. In those situations, you can look to see whether your victim is trying to get close to you, or whether she seems to want you to keep your distance. Is she is trying to make sense of her past, or would she rather pretend it never happened?

If you’re still married to the person you hurt and there’s no order of protection, then I think you can assume she still wants a relationship with you, on some level. She, at least, partly feels that way if you haven’t gotten papers from a lawyer. In that case, does your partner want the kind of marriage where you tell each other everything, or the kind that is compartmentalized, where secrets are expected? There are all kinds of marriages. In some of them, there is an understanding not to ask to many questions. Is this what she wants, or is this what she is settling for?

For that matter…
What kind of relationship do you want to have?

You’ve created the kind with secrets. Is this your idea of marriage?

If you don’t know what kind of relationship she wants to have, or if it’s not evident by her behavior, then that’s a conversation to initiate before you consider confession. If the two of you want a different kind of marriage, then you have bigger problems than extramarital activity.

Here’s another question for those in love relationships:
Who did your partner fall in love with, you or a perfect person you were pretending to be?

When you first started dating, you were probably on your best behavior; you were playing a perfect person. There’s no way you could have kept that up. At some point, you did something that put him off; something horrifying, annoying, discomfiting, or just plain weird. If he stuck around, and didn’t reject you, that’s how real love was formed. Love doesn’t come from flowers, kisses, and sweet nothings; but from acceptance, following anger, embarrassment, and shame. It’s a beautiful thing when it happens, even though it ain’t pretty when it’s made.

Here’s a related question:
Who do you want your partner to love, you or this fiction you created?

Do you want him to love the real you, with your imperfections, or a statue that belongs in the town square, covered by pigeons?

Not every client I see who confesses extramarital sexual activity asks me if he should tell his wife. Sometimes I have to ask him whether he will tell her. “Hell, no,” some say. “It’ll kill her… What she doesn’t know can’t hurt her… She doesn’t want to know.”

For them, I have more questions:
How do you know it’ll kill her? How do you know she’ll never forgive? How do you know she doesn’t want to know?

You’re staking a lot on how you believe she would take it. Maybe you know these things. Maybe you had a talk once. Maybe she said, “If you ever have an affair, don’t tell me. I wouldn’t want to know.” But she probably didn’t.

Once a relationship passes the initial fake perfect stage, you might think the couple would feel free to let it all hang out and be honest about everything. But, no; often that’s not what happens. What happens is the relationship has now become so vital that you don’t mess with it. You don’t quite go back to your original position of putting an attractive face on everything because, like, who are you kidding; but you head in the direction of secrecy. You don’t want to risk losing someone who knows you so well. Once your loved one has seen the bad and still loves you, you think you can never let her see anything like it again.

That is when couples stop communicating. That’s when they stop being honest; not out of any malice, but out of a desire to protect and preserve. That’s when you start your extramarital activity with someone who doesn’t matter.

To put it another way:
If your wife failed to know you well enough to suspect extramarital activity, then how can you be sure you know her well enough to know how she would react?

Here’s another one:
How many chances are you willing to take?

When your cover is blown and she finds out before you tell her, all hell will break loose for two reasons, the crime and the coverup. The coverup is worse.

If you are a risk taker and willing to take a chance on coverup, then…
Can you take a chance that confessing will be the very thing that changes your marriage for the better?

That happens sometimes, most of the time, actually; especially when the one doing the damage is serious about change. A marriage is one of those things: to keep it you have to be willing to lose it; not through extramarital activity, but by putting weight on it and counting on your partner’s trust and understanding to get you through.

If you’ve considered my questions and still believe you can’t confess your wrong to the person you hurt, then go back to your written statement of responsibility and add the following.

“I could have confessed to you, but, after consultation with an advisor, I carefully decided that a confession would just hurt you more. If I was wrong and have given you more reason not to trust me, then I acknowledge I was wrong to do this. I accept any consequence that comes of it and am committed to disclosing everything to you in the future if you want me to.”

Date it, have your adviser witness it, and put it in a safe place, so you can take it out when the jig is up.

10 Ways to Screw Up an Apology

If you’ve decided you can’t apologize to the person you hurt because it would hurt him more, then go with God. If you’ve decided you can’t apologize to the person you hurt because it would hurt you more, then see you in Hell. But, if you’ve decided you will apologize to the person you hurt because it’s the right thing to do, read on. There are still mistakes you could make.

1 You apologize without confessing

You might think it would be impossible to make an apology without admitting wrongdoing, but people sure try. They can’t seem to resist saying, I’m sorry, without following it with the word, but, and all manner of justifications and rationalizations. You need to admit what you did wrong, acknowledge the harm you caused, and say what you’re going to do to make it right.

The problem comes when you go beyond the simple acknowledgement of the deed and attempt to explain why you did it. There’s a time and a place for that, just not now, in your apology. To your victim’s ears, explanation sounds like justification and excuses.

You may have had good reasons for doing what you did. The person you hurt may have harmed you in some way first before you harmed him, but to bring that up now obscures your own confession. It confuses things and makes it sound like you’re not taking responsibility for your part of the problem.

2 You’re vague

Saying, “I’m sorry I hurt you,” is an apology in the same way that a moped is transportation. It’s lame. A moped will get you where you’re going, but not as memorably as a Ferrari. If you want to make a memorable impact on your relationship, make your apology into a Ferrari.

List the bad things you’ve done and the particular ways they had an effect on her. The more concrete you can be, the better your apology. “I lied,” is better than, “I hurt you”; but, “I lied to you about what I was doing Tuesday night,” is better than, “I lied.”

If you’re too vague, it sounds like you haven’t done the work, you haven’t gotten down and scrubbed out all then corners, you tried to get by with passing a quick broom across it. There could even be confusion over what you’re confessing. He could think you’re confessing the lie you told on Friday night, when all you’re talking about was Tuesday.

3 You only apologize when you’re forced to

You get a couple of points if you apologize after she’s caught you in the act or when she confronts you. It’s like telling her you love her after she says, “You don’t tell me you love me anymore.” It’s the bare minimum. It’s far better to tell her you love her without being asked. A good apology comes unprompted, after full consideration.

If you are confronted or caught in the act, it’s necessary to acknowledge the transgression right there and then; but you’re not done yet. Sometime later, after full consideration, bring it up again on your own. This shows you’re taking it seriously.

4 You don’t show empathy

It’s important in your apology to acknowledge the effect your actions had on him. This is to show you are taking his perspective. “I lied to you about what I was doing Tuesday night and now you can’t trust me,” shows you’re putting yourself in his shoes.

You might find it hard to know just what the effects have been. That’s OK, you don’t have to be right; you just have to show that you’ve tried.

5 You ask for forgiveness

People screw up a perfectly good apology when they ask for forgiveness. Asking for forgiveness puts your victim on the spot. It requires her to do something at a time when she may be unprepared. Besides, she shouldn’t be forgiving you just yet. You’re not off the hook until you actually change.

Some victims will offer forgiveness without being asked. Sometimes this comes from a good place in them; sometimes they’re just uncomfortable with receiving the confession and want it over with; sometimes they think it’s what they’re supposed to do. At any rate, when that happens, you should respectfully and graciously decline the gift, or, rather, offer to pick it up later, after you’ve made amends.

This doesn’t mean that things have to go on being tense like they may have been. You don’t have to sleep on the couch. An apology is supposed to be a turning point. You’ve changed direction, but you’re not there yet. You have not yet arrived at reconciliation.

6 You don’t answer questions

Your apology is not over when you’ve delivered your statement of responsibility. You need to stay for questions. Answering questions ensures that you haven’t missed anything or been too vague. It also shows that you’re willing to stand under scrutiny.

Depending on the nature of your transgression, you may be tempted to say to him, “You don’t want to know.” This happens often in the confession of an affair when the cuckolded spouse thinks he wants details. You might very sincerely want to protect your partner from the knowledge of where and when and how you had sex with that other man. You know he’s not going to want to have that image in his head. There’s also the matter of what he’s going to do with that information. Once he knows who you’ve been sleeping with, is that person going to be safe?

At times like this, when you don’t believe your partner is asking the right questions, you, as a couple, need help. There’s no good way out of this jam by yourselves. If you fail to answer the questions as asked, no matter how ill considered, it’s going to look like you have something to hide. If you do answer them, you may have just hurt him more. You may not be able to complete your confession just then. This is the time to enlist someone objective, whom you both can trust. This person can help your partner frame his questions in such a way to help him move on.

Most, if not all, of the questions a partner has boil down to one thing, “Can I trust you?” At the time of the confession, the true answer, the answer you have to give if you are honest, is “no”. He can’t trust you. You have to earn your trust back by making amends.

7 You want the whole thing over and done with and don’t offer to make amends

The words, “I’m sorry,” is not a magical incantation that makes everything better, they have to be followed up with improvements. Nothing changes just because you admit you did something wrong. People apologize over and over about the same thing all the time without doing anything different.

You should commit to change. If you’ve done your work prior to the confession you will have identified how you can make amends. If you’ve lied, then telling the truth will make it right. If you broke a promise, then keep your promises or don’t make promises you can’t keep in the first place. If you ran up the credit card bill without her knowing, then pay it off before buying anything for yourself again, and so on.

Making an apology is just the start of the process of reconciliation with your partner, it’s not the ending. It ain’t over till it’s over.

8You confuse symbols with the real thing

Sometimes, when a contrite husband brings his wife flowers to apologize for something, she gets angry and throws them in the trash. That’s what happens when the symbol of the apology and the real thing get confused.

The real part of the apology is the acknowledgement of the deed, its effects, and the way to make amends. The flowers serve as a reminder of the commitment to change. When you’ve done the actual work and made a true apology, the flowers don’t get thrown in the trash. When you make the flowers do the work for you, it looks like you’re trying to buy her off.

9You don’t listen

After you’ve admitted wrongdoing, the person you hurt may have something to say. He may have questions, he might want to point out how your actions impacted him, you may have missed something, he might have something else in mind about how you can make amends, maybe he has something he needs to get off his chest. Who knows, he may have a confession of his own to make. After you’ve made your apology, listen.

Listening, by the way, involves attending to more than just the words he says. You also have to pay attention to the way he says them. Note his body language, emotion, and inflection; this is impossible to do if you’re confessing by mail or text.

After you listen, summarize what he said in your own words. This lets him know it’s sunk in so he doesn’t have to keep saying it. If you get it wrong when you summarize, he’ll let you know. This is important. Maybe you didn’t hear him right. This could be a case of chronic miscommunication. If he does correct you, then summarize that until you have heard it correctly. Try doing that by mail or text and the confession could take weeks.

10You don’t document

After you’ve acknowledged the misdeed, its effects, and the way to make amends, write it all down so no one forgets. Date it and make yourself a reminder to pull it out and go over later. Then you’ll see if you’ve followed through with making amends. If you have, that might be the time to ask forgiveness. If you haven’t, then you have another apology to make and a whole lot more work to do.

You may not feel you need to do all of this if the misdeed is minor, like if you ate the last donut one morning. But if you’re always eating the last donut or if there is a pervasive pattern of selfish and inconsiderate behavior and eating the last donut is only one example, then the full treatment is necessary.

The more pervasive the pattern of misbehavior, the harder it’s going to be to change. You’re going to need all the help you can get. Make your apology and do it right and you’ll be less likely to need to do it again.

Making your Apology Stick

All too many people apologize and promise to change, but fail to follow it up. Not only do they fail to fulfill their promises, but they even fail to notice whether they’ve fulfilled them or not.

When you make your formal apology, admit your mistakes, work out how to make amends, and document the proceedings, you’re not done until you both open up your calendars and schedule a time to review your progress. You should meet again sooner, rather than later, after a week or two, or even after a few days, depending on how long it takes to enact the amends you have promised.

Some amends take longer to enact than others. Take amends for violence, for instance. If you’re the kind of guy that scares the bejeebers out of your family by punching holes in walls, overturning furniture, cussing, and slamming doors, you probably don’t do all that very often. Having a temper tantrum once every few years, or even once, is enough to scare people to their core and even hurt them, as well as get you in serious trouble. If you sincerely apologize for this behavior and promise to make amends by never doing it again, it may take years before anyone can admit you’ve kept your promise. Twenty years could go by and they could still be expecting another meltdown.

The amends you should promise should be something you can do right away, or even every day, and be related to the offense. Rather than promising never to put another hole in the wall, you can promise to talk about your feelings respectfully, rather than act on them. Take care of that and the practice of making holes in the walls will take care of itself.

If you schedule your review session very soon, like after a day or two, and if your amends are the kind you can perform daily, your partner will probably report you’ve done very well. Anyone can do well for a day or two after they apologize. If you don’t do well, maybe your amends need a tweak. You could need some help. The point is, the sooner you schedule a review, the sooner you notice if it’s not working, and the sooner you can prevent the problem from getting momentum again.

Let’s say your husband has been concerned about your drinking and you apologized for puking all over his stamp collection and promised to make amends by replacing a rare Mauritanian dodo bird stamp and keep your wine consumption under a glass a day. When you review on day three, you’re able to say the stamp has been found and ordered, but you have to admit that, on day two, you got sloshed yet again. If you can’t go three days without getting sloshed, you need help and may tweak your amends by adding that you’ll attend AA or go see a counselor about the problem. You might even find it easier to not get into the wine at all, rather than try to stop after one drink.

When people fail to schedule a review of progress, it’s not like their progress is never noticed. It’s noted when they relapse. What happens is that you go on limiting your drinking to one a day, until three months later when you don’t. Then the shit hits the fan and you get told that you don’t take it seriously when you really did very well, unnoticed, for three months.

Having frequent reviews can insure that you get positive feedback when you are doing well. These sessions also give you an opportunity to gracefully perform the hardest operation in this whole apologizing business, addressing your partner’s part in the problem. Right after he says, “Yes, you have been limiting your wine consumption to one glass a day and I appreciate the Mauritanian dodo stamp you got me.” That’s when you say, “Thank you. Now that I’ve been drinking less, I’ve noticed that you pay more attention to your stamp collection than you do me.”

If you’re like anyone who’s gotten in trouble, you know you don’t deserve one hundred percent of the blame. You could have been drinking all that wine because you were feeling ignored and you had to silence yourself from disturbing your husband when he was preoccupied with his stamp collection. You’ve done well if you’ve restrained yourself from pointing fingers at him till after you’ve taken responsibility for your part; but, if you go on feeling ignored without saying anything, that’ll turn into one more thing to be sorry about.

Listen to Your Lookout

When you’re finally done apologizing and making amends, you probably don’t want to have to do that again. You won’t want to make that mistake one more time. You’ll want to keep those problems away. So, listen to your lookout. He’ll tell you if they ever start coming around.

When the wheels start to come off, everyone is prone to develop their own kind of problem and make their own kind of mistakes. Some use substances, or gamble, or have sex with everyone, or can’t stop shopping: others get controlling. Still others get depressed or anxious or angry or just withdraw into themselves. Some have a combination of several kinds of problems and mistakes. Everyone’s got their thing. Your own type of problem and mistake is yours because it’s the very thing that sneaks up in your blind spots. It fits you like a glove. When it fools anyone into thinking it’s a good thing, it fools you first.

It takes hard work to eradicate problems and eternal vigilance to keep them away. Relapse can be expected. When we’re talking about addiction, it takes an average of seven real attempts before recovery feels solid and, even then, you won’t know if you’re going to need eight. Mental illness also tends to be episodic, and each new episode is worse than the last. People who have succumbed once to the temptations of violence, sexual recklessness, self harm, suicide attempts, or self pity are more likely to do it again. Moreover, problems will often go into hiding when they feel threatened, so that what appears to be recovery is really a more pernicious hidden phase of the same problem that troubled you before.

If you’re in a close relationship, you have a resource that others don’t have. You have a lookout. Your problem was not custom made just for her. It doesn’t sneak up in her blind spots. She spots it coming before you do. She can see through the deceptions more easily. She has a vested interest in keeping you safe from this problem. She could warn you that it’s approaching if only you will listen.

Paid professionals can help, they have the knowledge, they have the objectivity, but they don’t have the access your partner has. They don’t see you on the weekends and at night when problems often strike. They do not have as much at stake.

Far too many people fail to use their lookout. The lookout sees the problem coming and they argue with her, deny it’s happening, and get defensive. This is a mistake. It’s as if a lookout on a ship, up in the crow’s nest, saw an iceberg up ahead, and the captain yelled, “You’re crazy, I’m not going to hit an iceberg. You never trust me. I’m going to do what I want. Get off my back.” It would not be good if a captain did that.

To be sure, many lookouts don’t understand their role too well. When they see problems coming, they often make accusations, rather than observations. It’s as if the lookout, up in the crow’s nest, called out, “You’re hitting an iceberg again! Don’t you care about me?” They should just warn you that there’s an iceberg. They act so unreasonable, you might be tempted to dismiss their warnings as crazed paranoia. It would not be good if you, or any captain, did that.

However, you’ve got to realize that you’ve hit a few icebergs in your day, already, and your lookout should be excused if she gets excited when she sees another one.

There’s a few things you can expect from a good lookout. Don’t be surprised when you see them.

· A good lookout doesn’t resign. If your partner comes down from the crow’s nest and tells you that you’ve got to look out for your own problem, you can figure that next she’ll be going off in a lifeboat. True partners do not resign as lookouts, unless they’re about to leave the relationship, or they’re a damn fool. She has to be a lookout, if only to guard her own interests.

· A good lookout stays awake. He doesn’t watch like a hawk in the beginning and then forget about it later on. If it’s months or years since the problem last struck, don’t be surprised if he still on the lookout. He has to be. That’s his job.

· A good lookout scans the horizon. She doesn’t keep looking in the same place. The main thing to look out for is the way the problem arrived in the past. It is likely to come that way again. If, for instance, you get snappy at Christmas time, then she should be especially on the lookout at Christmas time. But understand, snappiness can come wherever there is busy-ness, family contact, alcohol use, overeating, darkness, or an imperative to be merry.

· A good lookout is not deceived. Problems arrive in disguise. No one starts off drinking three six-packs a day just to feel normal. No, they start off with a glass of wine at dinner, a beer during the game, or doing a shot with a friend. These things are all good things, there is nothing wrong with any of them in themselves. They are only evil because of where they lead. A good lookout sees through the disguises. He knows the masks that your problem wears.

· A good lookout is jumpy. She’s got to be vigilant. If you keep driving by that place where you used to score drugs, she should be seeing red flags. This may very well be the way the problem creeps up innocently.

· A good lookout raises the alarm. If he sees the problem return, he should say something, not keep that information to himself. You need to know it. He may not want to do it, no one wants to be the bearer of bad news, but this is what lookouts are for. If the problem has given the two of you a lot of trouble in the past, he might not want to believe it’s back. If the problem has already taken you over, he might get an argument.

· A good lookout keeps her eye on the hazard. If your lookout spots the problem, she should keep her eye on it, even if you say it’s nothing. In the case of chemical use, don’t be surprised if she looks for confirmation in the form of a home drug or alcohol testing kit to eliminate suspicions. For this, or other kinds of problems, she may want to get a second opinion from a professional; sort of like calling in another lookout and asking what he sees.

· A good lookout keeps himself safe. He shouldn’t be so busy being a lookout, watching out for your problem that he gets overcome by his own. Yes, even your partner has his own kind of problem and makes his own characteristic mistakes.

· A good lookout has someone looking out for her. Be your partner’s lookout, just as she is yours. Watch each others’ backs. You can see her problem more clearly than she can her own. If your partner has been dealing with your problem for a long time, she’s probably worked very hard to keep herself strong. Someone in the house had to function. The laundry, the cooking, the kids, the relatives, the shopping, and going to work don’t get done by themselves. She may not be accustomed to relying on you for anything; you just haven’t been reliable. That’s going to have to change. She needs a lookout, too.

If you’ve ever complained that your partner doesn’t trust you, let him be your lookout. This is how he learns to trust you again.

Keith Wilson writes on mental health and relationship issues on his blog, Madness 101.

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Mental Health Counselor and Writer www.keithwilsoncounseling.com

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