The Power of Apology

Dick Price recently posted an interesting comment on the power of apology.

In it he says, “As you may know, divorces are often very emotional experiences. It is also true that while generally both parties are at fault for the breakup of the marriage, often only one of the parties recognizes his or her underlying mistakes that led to the breakup. In many ways, it would probably be beneficial to the emotional health of the parties, and the bottom line financially, if one or both of the parties could and would apologize for at least some of the wrongs inflicted on the other party during the marriage.”

This reminded me of a fascinating lecture I heard given by Lee Taft, a former certified trial specialist and graduate of the Harvard Divinity School, at the 2010 Collaborative Law Course sponsored by the State Bar of Texas and the Collaborative Law Institute of Texas. In his lecture, Taft differentiated between “partial” and “full” apologies. In a “partial” apology, he writes, the offending party expresses sympathy for the wronged party, but does not accept responsibility for the event that caused the injury or wrong. He goes on to say that a “full” apology includes the expression of sympathy contained in the partial apology but, importantly, adds an acknowledgment of responsibility. He cites Richard Nixon’s resignation statement as what he calls a “botched” apology — i.e., one that not only fails to communicate the offender’s remorse but creates further harm that can strain relationships and fuel vengence.

Accepting full responsibility may not be enough if the person apologizing is hoping for reconciliation. For that there must be forgiveness by the wounded party, which Taft suggests is only possible when there is what Taft calls “authentically performed repentance”.

When collaborative professionals represent clients who want to repair their marriages or, at least, pave the way for a cooperative relationship after divorce, they need to explore with them whether they are willing to take responsibility for the problems in the marriage and whether they are willing to demonstrate that willingness in making changes that recognize what needed repair in the relationship. If there is any divorce process that offers an opportunity for a healing apology, it is collaborative law, which brings couples together in a dialogue that would be discouraged in the litigation model.