Sorry to say, but Elton John and Bernie Taupin had it wrong. “Sorry” is definitely not the hardest word. In fact, saying the word is relatively easy. Now really being sorry, and having the kind of character that permits you to humbly express your sincere regrets to someone you’ve hurt is another thing altogether. That’s definitely not so easy. Of course, there are those pathologically prideful characters who can’t even bring themselves to say they’re sorry, but that’s probably best left for discussion in another post. But inasmuch as there’s been a lot of discussion in the past few weeks about relationship partners who had finally “agreed” to seek counseling but who were still not really acknowledging their character issues or the pain those issues had caused others, I thought it might be helpful to re-examine the topic of contrition and the role it can play in turning troubled relationships around.
Before getting too deep into the discussion, however, let me first state how big a red flag it is for me whenever someone’s relationship partner has finally “consented” to geting counseling of some sort, Such a scenario necessarily means two things: the person finally acceding to the demand for counseling didn’t really believe there was anything about themselves that needed confronting and/or changing in the first place, or if they did recognize they had issues work on, they lacked sufficient motivation of their own (for any number of reasons, some of which are in themselves very telltale) to do something about it without being prodded. So, it’s important for folks in dysfunctional relationships to accept up front that finally cajoling their partner into getting some help is a high-risk enterprise right from the outset.
I’ve touched on contrition issues in several posts and written two prior articles specifically addressing the topic (see: What Real Contrition Looks Like and Contrition, Behavior, and Therapy). And in the former article, I quote from my book Character Disturbance about the nature of contrition, which necessarily has it’s roots in empathy for the harm someone has caused another. As many of you know, one of the hallmark features of character disturbance is an impaired capacity for empathy, and in the case of the most severely disturbed character – the psychopath – empathy and conscience are absent altogether. The quote from the book is worth repeating again:
There is a big difference between regretting the consequences to oneself of bad behavior (e.g., getting caught, paying fines, receiving other social sanctions) and experiencing genuine empathy-based remorse for the injury caused to others. For a person to experience any degree of genuine “contrition” which could prompt them to change their ways, two things must occur: (1) they not only have to feel genuinely badly about what they have done (i.e. guilty), but (2) they must also be internally unnerved about the kind of person they must have allowed themselves to become (i.e. shameful) to have behaved so irresponsibly. Their shame and guilt must then propel them to make of themselves a better person. True contrition always involves what the ancient Greek philosophers termed “metanoia” or “a change of heart.
And in the first contrition article, I go on to say:
True contrition looks like this: the person can no longer live with themselves and becomes invested in making of themselves a better person. It can’t be an “acceptance of responsibility” spoken on the lips accompanied by a steadfast refusal to pay the price (and not merely the price of public embarrassment) of duly earned consequences. It can’t just be crocodile tears of remorse that are openly displayed but aren’t accompanied by a change of one’s typical style. It can’t be the mere broadcasting of regret that’s not paired with clear action to make amends. True contrition involves a change of heart. It’s humbly reckoning with oneself, the deficiencies in one’s character that allowed the person to indulge in the misbehavior in the first place, coupled with a firm commitment to exorcise those character defects so that the errors are not repeated.
Now a relationship partner whom you’ve confronted and who is truly contrite about their dysfunctional ways and really wants to make things better talks and acts in certain predictable ways. The contrite partner does not say things like: “I’ll go to therapy if it will make you happy,” or “I’m doing what you asked me so will you get off my back?” or “Can’t we just put things behind us and get on with life again… I said I was sorry a million times now…. What else do you want from me?!” Rather, he or she says things like: “I know I really messed up and I really hurt you,… I know I’ve got some issues to work on,… I want to make things better and make up for what I’ve done and I want to be sure I never do such things again,… I’ll do whatever it takes to get your forgiveness and trust.” And what real contrition looks like is action that’s in line with and backs up such words. Such action does not include trying to drag you into the therapy process from the beginning, using all sorts of manipulation and impression-management techniques (like I outline in In Sheep’s Clothing) to make the therapist wonder if you’re crazy for insisting your partner come in. Instead, real contrition in action means doing one’s own work ardently and faithfully and only when changes are really evident, inviting one’s partner into a conjoint process of relationship repair.
Finally, it’s important to remember that merely feeling badly about something is still not the same as experiencing true contrition. As I mention in the article article Contrition, Behavior, and Therapy:
I simply cannot count the number of times during my professional career when people who had done something horrible felt badly about it in some way afterwards. Often, they felt badly every time they repeated the same behavior. Having some regret simply isn’t enough to make a person mend their ways. I also can’t count the times that those affected by another’s misdeeds were so swayed by the wrongdoer’s display of tears or a claim of regret that they unfortunately helped “enable” that person to avoid real change. Therapists can be unduly swayed by such displays as well. Sentiment never stripped anyone of their character defects. It takes a lot of concerted effort to overcome our shortcomings. The truly contrite individual works to make amends, to do better, and above all, to be better. That always involves demonstrable, consistent behavior – behavior that can be observed, monitored, encouraged, rewarded, and measured in sound cognitive-behavioral therapy.
This issue is so important that I’m sure we’ll come back to it in the discussion many times (and you can find many illustrative examples of contrition in action in my book The Judas Syndrome). But hopefully this brief revisiting of the issue will help raise awareness of the conditions that need to be present if someone you’re in a relationship with is going to effectively use therapy as a vehicle for meaningful change. And because the truly contrite person accepts the obligation to repair damage he or she has done, it goes hand in hand with repentance, about which we’ll talk in an upcoming post.