Dina Haddad is a former law clerk from The Law Collaborative, who now practices family law at McManis Faulkner. Mediate.com sent me this article in one of their recent newsletters. It is an excellent piece about the power of sincere apology. For more information about Attorney Haddad, click here.
DEALING WITH THE PAINS OF DIVORCE THROUGH MEANINGFUL AND COMPLETE APOLOGY
By: Dina Haddad
If you are contemplating divorce, in the midst of a divorce, or already have a divorce decree in hand, you know pressures of the legal process do not compare to the emotional turmoil you are experiencing. The emotional pressures can be quelled when you give a meaningful and complete apology. It has the effect of freeing you from the weight of the divorce, helps heal you and the person you offended, restores your relationships, and even provides direct legal benefits to your case.
Apologies: The Need to Give and Receive
During the divorce, you process a variety of thoughts and emotions while attempting to understand what lead to the dissolution of your marriage. You conclude that some of these failures were your spouse’s fault and others were yours. Many were a result of both you and your ex-spouse. You may struggle with the shame and guilt you experience for the affair you had or the misuse of your family’s money. You may feel guilty that your marriage failed. You may have even come to terms that this guilt is not going to disappear when the divorce process is over. You are haunted by the thought of having on-going contact with your ex-spouse and you can’t imagine co-parenting for the next ten years in any healthy way or being at your children’s celebrations with your ex-spouse in the years to come.  Internal factors, such as shame, guilt, or empathy, may motivate a person to apologize as well as external factors, such as restoring a damaged relationship.
These are heavy and weighty issues many divorcees feel. A meaningful and complete apology, however, has the power to heal, relieve you of the humiliations and grudges, and help you establish a more healthy future relationship with your ex-spouse.  An apology can take you from desiring revenge to a place of acceptance. It has the power to make your situation better and reduce the anger and resentment your ex-spouse has towards you and you have against your ex-spouse.
But even for what is undoubtedly our own fault, most of us find it very hard to apologize. It’s hard to admit we were wrong to anyone, especially to an ex-spouse. We worry that if we did apologize, we would feel weak and our spouse would feel superior to us.  In fact, there is no guarantee that once we put ourselves at the mercy of our spouse that we will be forgiven. If our spouse does not forgive us, would it only result in injury to our pride and self-esteem?
The Apology Risk
Apologies are not easy, but the benefits likely outweigh the risks and your fears. And without an apology, you are likely to face additional short-term and long-term consequences. As you are probably aware, the divorce process can be very nasty. Spouses are pitted against each other to fight for important issues such as time with their children, ownership of the family home, and division of the family estate. An insulted spouse may be too hurt to discuss settlement options and may express his/her anger in litigious tactics. Even in mediation an insulted spouse would find it difficult to trust the other spouse enough to reach a mediated settlement or forgo tit for tat strategies.
An apology, however, can prevent this antagonistic behavior  and heal the damaged relationship between you and your spouse. Apologies heal because they satisfy at least one – and sometimes several – distinct psychological needs of the offended party. Those needs are: restoration of self-respect and dignity, assurance that you and your ex-spouse still have shared values, and your ex-spouse’s assurance that the offense you are apologizing for was not his or her fault.  For example, an apology that you are sorry you mismanaged the finances and did not save enough money as your spouse requested for the children’s college fund demonstrates that you understand the value of your children’s education – a value both you and your spouse share.
The apology process also allows you and your ex-spouse to keep the past in the past, and create a relationship based on the present circumstances, absent hate and revenge. This gives you an opportunity to deal with your ex-spouse on a more level playing field. Otherwise, the insult from the injury and the indignity your ex-spouse is experiencing can be a large barrier to compromise. It will affect you when you try to settle your case. It will have an emotional weight on you personally. And it will hamper your on-going relationship with your ex-spouse, particularly if you and your ex-spouse have children to raise together.  On the other hand, a meaningful and complete apology has the power to keep your ex-spouse from being unreasonable in mediation and settlement discussions and using the courtroom to punish you. It will give you a healthier and redefined relationship for the future.
How to Apologize
The manner in which you apologize is crucial to the success of your apology. I am sure we each can recall countless examples of apologies that just didn’t work. For example, we’ve had our spouse, friend, or family member apologize half-heartedly. Other times, we’ve received an apology so vague it was not clear if the person was in fact apologizing. We’ve also been recipients of conditional apologies, in which the offender says something to the effect: “I’m sorry if I hurt you,” leaving us questioning whether the offender even believed she or he had actually hurt us or done something wrong. Other times, the offender doesn’t even admit to his or her personal fault when apologizing. For example, the offender may say, “Mistakes were made,” rather than “I made a mistake.”  We know from experience that these apologies don’t work because they leave us wondering whether the offender really understood what was done wrong, whether the offender would never do the same wrong again, and whether the offender was really sorry.