While doing my research for this article, I found the general answer to this question was, NO. So in my typical fashion, I’m going to buck the trend and say that, YES, if you’re doing it for the right reasons, you should apologize to an ex. Even if many years have passed.
The following is a list of common arguments against an apology and how I believe they don’t really stand up.
So here we go…
You only want to apologize to ease your own guilt. You were wrong, so deserve to just live with that guilt.
This would have to be the number one sentiment I found. For the most part it felt like I was viewing a new television game show called “Who Wants to be a Masochist?” So what if the apology rids you of some guilt? If you treated someone poorly and you now see what you did was wrong, you should apologize.
More to the point, it’s ok to acknowledge your progress as a human being, and in doing so, share it with the people you burned along the way. You’re not just ruminating and patting yourself on the back, you’re doing something to remedy the past.
There’s nothing wrong with you getting a payoff from your apology, as long as it’s done with the right intentions.
You might be opening an old wound.
There are two ways to look at this argument. First, you might be opening an old wound, but I doubt it. If what you did truly hurt someone, my guess is if they still harbor bad feelings about what you did, the wound never closed anyway.
Second, though you might open an ‘old’ wound, there’s also a chance you’ll heal an old wound too and your apology may well be what the wronged party needs. Many times when you hurt someone, what they really want is for you to acknowledge the pain caused; when you fail to do that, chances are you’ve caused damage to that person. What you’ve said in the past is, “Your pain doesn’t exist, I didn’t see why I should say sorry.”
By letting that person see you are sorry and that you have also suffered at the hands of your own actions, you are telling them they were not alone in their pain. Do not take this as an invitation to harp on about your suffering, just mention that your self-inflicted regret has affected you and leave it there.
Moreover, the other party may see something good has come from the hurt and your apology may provide a form of absolution. To see that you’ve grown from what has happened, in itself can bring great healing.
Maybe they don’t care anymore and have moved on.
This might be true. Great. In which case most people, even if they have moved on, will still appreciate your effort. As long as your apology isn’t a veiled excuse to try to get them back and you’re careful not to make it sound like you’re doing them a huge favor by saying sorry. In this case it might seem like a redundant apology, but you’re not likely to bruise your ego too much. And at least you’ll find out the damage you caused was not that bad after all.
But it’s a big assumption to think they wouldn’t care. I can promise you, there are a few people I’d love to get an apology from, even if it has been years. The fact is you don’t know what’s going on in another person’s heart, they might want your apology, just as much as you want to give it.
It’s been a long time, why bother?
Because clearly it’s still bothering you, and maybe it’s still bothering them. What does time have to do with it if there’s a chance you can put things right? I say take the chance, it’s never too late to offer peace. The world needs more of it.
You’ll look pathetic, they might react badly.
So what? You did something crappy to another human being, you can afford to lose a little face. Chances are they had their ego dented more than you did.
At the end of the day you cannot control their reaction, just as much as they couldn’t control yours when you were set on hurting their feelings. If they react badly or call you names, or even worse, ignore your apology altogether; that’s the price you pay for hurting another person. An apology isn’t supposed to be easy, it isn’t supposed to be about you, you’re getting a fair trade.
They might take it as an invitation to come back into your life.
If you’re going to apologize, go to the effort of making your boundaries clear. Even if you would like this person back in your life, an apology is not the time to do it.
Apart from setting boundaries, if they do see your apology as a way back in, to which you’re not comfortable; I suggest using your ability and newfound maturity to let them down gently. Make it clear you’re saying sorry without expecting anything of it and try to distinguish between them wanting back in, versus them wanting some answers. Your apology may instigate some lingering questions, answer them and let the other party have their closure too. An apology isn’t about you unleashing the words ‘I’m sorry’ and wiping your hands clean of the situation.
But I wasn’t the only guilty party.
This many be the case but remember, we’re big kids now. I’ve been in situations where it was obvious I was the wronged party. I’m talking dating a serial cheater who was emotionally abusive, but you know what, in the end I still apologized for what I did and the ways I acted out. I had every right to argue his behavior was the reason for my inflicting pain but ultimately I’m a grown woman and I’m the one responsible for how I act. I said sorry and I never got an apology back, but my own apology did help me to close the door on a bad relationship.
But be warned…
An apology has nothing to do with you and everything to do with the person you hurt. Yes, you might lose some guilt from doing it, but that is not the point. The reason many advice columns say not to apologize is that so many apologies are done incorrectly and for weak reasons.
When giving an apology you should not expect to be forgiven. There’s a chance that what you did hurt your ex bad enough that they are not at a place to give forgiveness. Or maybe life hasn’t given them an opportunity to heal in the same way you have and they can’t find it in their heart to forgive you. That is their prerogative and chances are the hurt you caused is greater than the guilt you feel. But you never know. Saying sorry could be a big step in them finding their healing.
Lastly, the keystone to a great apology is to stick to apologizing for what YOU did. Make a list of what you did wrong, under each of these list how you believe the other person was likely made to feel. Don’t not make excuses for why you did what you did. No one cares why, even if they are the ones asking. The main point is you’ve grown and you’re owning up to it.
But remember, in the end your words mean little if your actions don’t reflect what you say. If you claim to have learned your lessons, be sure that your behavor in life correlates to that and you are not just repeating old mistakes. Otherwise it’s better your apology is left unsaid.
P.S: Here is an article on how to write a good apology. And whatever you do, do not say “I’m sorry you were hurt”, no one wants to hear you apologize for how they feel.
P.P.S: The one exception to all I’ve said is this: If an ex has in the past outright asked you to leave them alone and/or never contact them again, PLEASE respect their wishes. Don’t ever contact someone who has been clear with their boundaries.
Hope you enjoyed today’s post. I love reading and responding to everyone’s comments, so feel free to leave a comment of your own.
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**UPDATE: Due to this post’s popularity, I’ve filmed a video version for my YouTube Channel!