It’s not unusual for women to feel guilty when there is conflict. We do it with each other. We do it with our children. In a house. With a mouse. On a train, in the rain… You get it. We assume and burden a lot of guilt and shame. (Note: triggers ahead. Read with caution or in a safe place. Take a deep breath. Or a break. Or don’t read it. That’s not a problem.)
Perhaps you’re someone who apologizes immediately. Constantly? “I’m sorry.” “I’m sorry.” “You wanted ketchup instead of mustard? I’m sorry.”
Back up the bus and consider what guilt is. Google says guilt is, “the fact of having committed a specified or implied offense or crime.” The Holman Bible dictionary notes, “Guilt is connected with sin in the Bible.” In other words, guilt is the result of doing something wrong or breaking a law/rule. We get that.
In a relationship with a controlling individual, there is a lot of guilt because that individual has a lot of rules. Not only do the rules change capriciously, there are real punishments associated with breaking each and every rule. The person in power controls which rule is most important in any given moment and determines when, how, why, and what kind of punishment applies whether the rule was spoken, unspoken, real or imagined. Punishment may be an unkind word, silence, the loss of money, “privileges*,” belittling, lecturing, slamming doors, an ultimatum, or consequences for children/pets. Some individuals wrongly believe that physical and sexual assault are the only form of punishment in an abusive relationship. For an abusive individual, nothing is off the table. Nothing is too much, too low, too wrong. Emotions, such as guilt, shame, and fear are used to manipulate or coerce continued obeisance, or deferential respect, and obedience. And it works. That’s why you feel guilty.
If you don’t live in that kind of environment, just imagine what it’s like to live on high alert, experience ongoing punishment, and consider 100 different responses to the same situation. If you can wrap your mind around living there 24-7, you are on the path to understanding why post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other auto-immune dysfunctions that result from adrenal fatigue are common in abuse survivors. You can also begin to understand why a 2-week trial separation is not enough time to unravel the damage done by the abuser.
So why do women apologize if they’re not guilty? To avert punishment. When they duck their head, curl on the floor, and tuck into themselves, it is a means of protection–a show of surrender. He has to win. So give him the win already and keep yourself safe. It’s not even a consideration, it’s a life-preserving response.
It’s also true that confession and a quick acknowledgment of guilt may bring relief–or it does sometimes, and that’s good enough. “Sometimes” is worth a try.
And, in our Christian, biblical worldview, we have been taught that confession precedes forgiveness. When I confess my sin to God, He is faithful and just to forgive my sin and cleanse me from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). This forgiveness and absolution is what we need–and want–more than anything. We know that in our soul. We pray that God will hear and answer. When He doesn’t, when relief doesn’t come, we wonder if the abuse is simply an extension of God’s punishment. “I deserve it.” “I should have (fill in the blank). If I only I had (fill in the blank) I wouldn’t be treated like this.”
Churches, pastors, Bible study leaders, biblical counselors, we must do better. Jesus has removed our wrath. He is the Sacrifice, the only acceptable Sacrifice for our sin. He paid it once for all time, for all men (Hebrews 7:27; 9:7, 12; 10:10). There is no sacrifice that will please God apart from Jesus Christ. There is no sacrifice that will make things right.
So if we say, “I’m sorry,” we can stop and ask, “Whose rule did I break?” Did I break my rule? Someone else’s rule? God’s rule?
Did I sin against God and others? It’s possible that your conscience is not trained by God’s Word but by your own experience or desires.
People pleasing, as it relates to saying I’m sorry, is different than saying I’m sorry to avoid punishment or abuse. Speaking for myself, the people pleasing part of me will do almost anything to gain your approval and acceptance. I want that more than acknowledging I’m weird, unlikeable–or even that I did something wrong. I want you to like me. I want you to want to be with me and say wonderful things about me. From your response, however, I can tell that you don’t like what I did. Maybe, if I apologize, you will overlook my weakness and failure. Therefore, instead of loving you, honoring your (true) opinion of me, and allowing you to move on with your life, I draw you back in to addressing my wounded pride and desire for your approval. That is not the same as wanting to avoid punishment. Wanting to please people may coincide with abusive relationships or happen automatically, but it doesn’t cause or bring about abuse. You are not responsible for anyone else’s sin. That’s on them. It’s their choice, not yours.
So when you say, “I’m sorry,” stop to ask why you’re sorry–or what you’re sorry for. When you apologize (check out this great resource on biblical confession from relational wisdom 360), think through the desired outcome. What did you want? Why did you apologize?
Is it wrong to apologize? Absolutely not. And if you are in a punitive relationship, it’s a tool of the trade that night mean it’s time to get help.
*a grown individual should never have to “earn privileges” from another individual, especially a husband or wife.