Tell Me About It: A statute of limitations on apologies?

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Question: I'm hoping you can help. A friend and I were discussing the merits (or lack thereof) of apologizing to someone for long-ago wrongs - namely significant others.

I argue it's a bad idea. If I got an apology from a certain jerky ex, I'd think it was pretty arrogant of him to think I'm still thinking about him and he only wants his conscience absolved - both of which aren't about me. You shouldn't do that to someone else, and your guilt is your punishment to carry.

My friend argues that some might be happy or feel more closure and that it's good to hear it and it might not always be a wound that reopens.

I don't know. It depends on the person, but if my ex did that, I'd probably respond with, "Yeah, you just miss the cooking, sex, and a date to parties. If you appreciated me, you wouldn't have left." My friend says she'd be thrilled if her crappy ex did that. Thoughts?

Answer: "It depends," meaning, how bitter you still feel?

I can see thinking (without actually saying), "Yeah, you just miss the cooking, sex, and a date to parties," etc. - if he tried to reconcile or proposed being "friends," wink-wink. But just apologizing? That gives him no access to sex unless he tries to cash in on any post-apology goodwill, so you can give him the benefit of the doubt on motives unless and until he does.

Sure, apologies can be selfish, all about conscience-clearing, but they don't have to be. They can also be about attempting to right a wrong, or to assure you that you weren't undesirable or at fault or a rube for caring.

Sometimes, the passage of time brings maturity to an ex, to both of you, and even an unwelcome apology can be made and received graciously.

The assurance-type apology can be extraordinarily liberating for people. Poor treatment can send victims into a spiral of "Am I an idiot?"-"Do I smell?"-"What did I do wrong or could I have done differently?"-type questions. A sincere apology can put all of those to rest, in a way few other things can.

So can time and experience, so, to me, the biggest risk of an apology for long-ago wrongdoing is redundancy. A lot of people don't need apologies for things they got over years ago.

And, yes, being treated as if you do need such reassurance can feel a bit as if you're being patronized, and the reflex you describe - "What, you think I still think of you? How arrogant" - is pretty common.

But wouldn't world peace, or grace, or decency, or whatever other good cause, be better served if you just said, "I'm fine, but I appreciate the gesture"?

For those considering making such an apology, all I can advise is to weigh potential costs and benefits. Many people do urgently want to be left alone, just as some want to hear they weren't wrong or stupid or unworthy of love, so there's no sure way to get it right. You can only take your best guess at which, in the eyes of the other person, would be seen as the kindest thing.

Chat with Carolyn Hax online at noon Fridays at


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