Making Amends

When a person in a relationship says or does something to damage the bond with their partner, making proper amends is crucial: for a damaged relationship to survive, heal, and grow, the person who’s caused the damage has to be willing to do the hard work of repair.

Making amends in a healthy and meaningful way takes a lot of hard work. And as I’ve mentioned in prior articles, folks with character disturbances don’t easily undertake such burdens, especially when doing so is primarily for someone else’s benefit or doesn’t serve their own immediate desires (see “When W-O-R-K is a Four-Letter Word”).

I’ve counseled many couples whose relationship suffered damage because one of the partners had some degree of character dysfunction. In nearly every case, the key variable in whether the relationship survived was whether the disturbed character had both the motivation and, more especially, the willingness to genuinely make amends. That kind of willingness has several easily identifiable characteristics, which I hope to illustrate in the vignette that follows (where, as always, potentially identifying information has been altered to ensure anonymity).

Fran had been urging her husband Brent to go to counseling with her for some time. Having sought therapy herself years ago, she knew firsthand how beneficial it could be to talk with a trained professional. She was hoping that the experience would do for Brent what it had done for her: increase his awareness about some things important to the health of their relationship.

There had been problems in their marriage for quite awhile, but lately there were some warning signs of even greater trouble. Fran had recently and inadvertently discovered that Brent had been “texting” a woman at work on a fairly frequent basis, and one of the texts she just happened to stumble upon contained some language that suggested he was looking for something other than an innocent involvement with her. When she confronted him about it, he seemed contrite enough. He even apologized, which was unusual for him. But he insisted not only that “nothing actually happened” but also that his only mistake was perhaps carrying a “harmless flirtation” with a casual workplace friend a bit too far. He also offered what appeared on the surface to be a perfectly reasonable explanation (i.e., rationalization) for his actions. He’d been feeling emotionally neglected for some time and the flirtation seemed to lift his spirits. He also insisted he wasn’t really blaming Fran for his indiscretion — although actually, he was — but wanted her to understand he wasn’t a bad guy but rather a guy who simply felt underappreciated, and in the midst of his hurt and in a moment of weakness made a simple “mistake.” Still, Fran wanted him to go with her to counseling because her gut was telling her that there was something not right about their intimate life and also about the way he tended to look at and relate to women. In the early days of their relationship she felt treated almost like a princess. But things quickly changed and emotional distance grew. Lately, she wasn’t feeling valued at all, which is what perhaps was bothering her most, so she hoped a good therapist could help them sort things out.

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Fran was delighted when she heard Brent had made the appointment for their first session with the counselor. She was even happier when he started doing things for her that he hadn’t done for a long time, like paying more attention to her, buying her flowers, and taking her out to dinner. It seemed like he really wanted to make up for the hurt he’d caused and put their relationship on a better track. Besides, he must have said he was sorry a hundred times — something very different for a proud guy like Brent. So when he suggested that maybe they didn’t really need to keep the appointment with the therapist after all, she didn’t know what to think. Had she simply overblown everything? Had she been too hard on him and overly judgmental? Would it do more harm than good to press the issue of counseling? Hadn’t he already done enough to make amends? The answer wouldn’t become clear for some time. That’s when she learned there had been other “flirtations,” some of which went much further than she ever imagined. And that’s when she realized that Brent’s apparent remorse wasn’t all that sincere: he wasn’t out to make amends, but rather to appease her and also to keep the lid on all that had to be accounted for.

When I was doing case study research for one of my books which I’ll mention below, I came across many cases similar to that of Fran and Brent. These taught me a lot about the nature of genuine remorse and the willingness to make amends. But this case is particularly illustrative. Truly contrite persons not only work to repair the damage they’ve caused but also work to make the kinds of changes in themselves that lessen the chances they’ll engage in similar transgressions again. And the kind of therapy that can facilitate such change has a very different character from traditional insight-oriented psychotherapy.

I’ll shortly be writing more about what making solid amends is necessarily all about, and if you’d like to learn more in the meantime, see the two previous articles on contrition as well as two of my books:

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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