How not to apologize

It’s been four years since I got divorced. And though I’ve talked before in my own writing (and in others’) about my marriage and my experiences in an abusive relationship, I’ve only rarely said explicitly that they were the same relationship.

It should go without saying after that paragraph, but — trigger warning: this is about domestic abuse, its aftermath, and confronting my abuser. There are no graphic descriptions of the actual abuse, just some mentions of some examples.

I’ve reached a point where I’m at peace with that part of my past. Maybe I’m not totally healed, but I’m not angry anymore. Well, I’m not angry at her. Usually. Whatever pain and anger I still experience just fuels increased empathy for my friends who are still going through similar experiences. It drives me to try and help as much as I can.

Lately, many of those friends have been publicly calling out their abusers and rapists. In cases where the law is slow to move — when it moves at all — this is all the control many victims get to claim over their experiences. Doing this is a revolutionary reclamation of power and basic control over their lives.

Publicly stating the name of the person who hurt them may be all the justice they get to see; while it’s an act of courage, they’re also opening themselves up to derision, ridicule and open questioning of their claims. It’s a defiant vulnerability, and I admire it.

However, that vulnerability is also why a few have chosen to do this anonymously, and through a third party. Doing this has a couple advantages:

  1. It has the benefit of making the the perpetrator, not the survivor, the focus of the callout, which along with creating a stronger message, it lessens the likelihood that the survivor will be considered an “attention whore.”
  2. Anonymity is less likely to make the victim a target of either the initial abuser or their friends or of strangers who blithely go about blaming the victim: “I don’t have pity for victims who go back to their abusers, I mean once or twice, sure, but…” or “I don’t know. They’ve always been nice to me. Someone must have done something.”

I’ve also heard every approach possible described as “the wrong tactic” in “the wrong place” at “the wrong time” or “sounding like a scorned lover.”

There is no acceptable way to ask that someone who hurt you repeatedly be held accountable by their community. There will always be someone telling you you’re doing it wrong.

These criticisms reek of victim shaming, if not victim blaming. And we’ve heard all of them before. It’s a part of why so many of us wait years to say anything. It’s why we hesitated to go to the authorities, or never went at all. Add to that the various forms of manipulation we’ve experienced, and of course we go back to these people or stay silent or both.


A couple weeks ago, after a surge of those callouts, my ex-wife emailed me to “apologize.” It’s clear that she’s seen victims calling out the people who’ve hurt them, and she knows that my one of my closest friends—who was one of the first in town to call her abuser out by name — happens to have been a direct witness of some of the abuse meted out on me.

My ex’s half-assed, self-serving “apology” tore open these old wounds that were healing just fine, thank you very much. It threw me completely off balance, setting off an entire week of heightened anxiety and nightmares. Probably worst of all, she sent the email at 6:50 in the morning, just to really start my day off on the right foot.

I don’t want to call her out by name. My story is mine and mine alone. I don’t want her to be part of my narrative anymore. I don’t want speaking the truth of my experience to be confused with talking shit; bringing names in tends to do that.

But her timing with those emails makes it clear that she knows hers should be among the names getting called out for abuse. So I’m not going to crop her name out of these screenshots. I’m not going to type her name up either, though, because I just don’t want that bad SEO juju.

So yes, I am angry with her again, but now, rather than give into pointless bluster and vaguebooking and subtweeting, I’ve decided that I’m going to just let her tell you that she did it. I don’t want legal action or revenge. I’m not interested in talking shit. I’ll even give you my responses, word-for-word. I’ve already given up the option of anonymity. I just want you to know:

I didn’t respond right away, but while I was mulling over how to respond, I went on a little Twitter rant:

However, there is an exception to this rule for “however.”

She does not follow me. She’s had my Twitter blocked for four years, and my Facebook since she sent that email. I keep mine public, because I want to. But because she has me blocked, she can’t see my feed if she’s logged in. I guess she borrowed a computer, opened an Incognito tab, or elsewise just came a-creepin’, because half an hour after that last tweet, this dropped into my inbox:

I paused, thought for a second, then posted this:

I decided to sit on a proper response for a while, to let my anger distill. Two days later, it was ready. This is the full, unedited text:

Hey to you.
I’m glad you’ve been doing some self-reflection. I know how hard it is to admit that you’ve hurt someone. I’m grateful you’ve made that effort.
Any time I’ve told you I was hurt, all I’ve asked was that you not do that again. I hope your current efforts prove successful.
I didn’t expect you’d ever apologize at all, and I was fine with that. “The best apology is action,” sure, but you’ve left me with neither an apology for anything specific nor any hint of actual actions being taken. I’d happily accept a real apology, but this isn’t one.
Basically, I don’t know why you bothered to send this when I was at peace with you. Frankly, it’s offensive. I’m sure that’s confusing, and I’d like to explain. To borrow a phrase you often used: Let me tell you about you.
You apologized for “some of the things” you did that were abusive, “at worst.” While you later edited that to “at worst, I was abusive,” it still misses the point.
The problem was never that you did “some things” that were abusive, it’s not that you had some abusive personality traits. It would be an insult to your intelligence and individual agency to let you off the hook like that.
Explanations are not excuses. The problem always was that you chose those actions.
I loved you. I trusted you. You took advantage of that by knowingly choosing actions that hurt me. You made those choices so consistently, I have to believe they were deliberate. You abused me. You are wholly responsible for that choice.
It wasn’t a personality trait, and it wasn’t isolated incidents. It was a long and consistent string of actions you chose to take that, together, made the “at best” unfair aggressions equal to the “at worst” abusive ones.
Your choices reduced me to a shell of who I had been. They made me believe that I was unworthy of affection, let alone love, which in turn left me susceptible to a suicidal depressive breakdown. They still leave me feeling like I’m going to get punished if I eat. They give me nightmares to this day. And I can see now that the aggressions, both micro-and macro-, started before that breakdown, before we were even married.
To tell me that “unfair” was a best-case scenario is remarkably self-aware, but telling me that “abusive” was a worst-case scenario, instead of the everyday nature of the way you chose to treat me, is for you — out of the blue and a full year after our last, merely polite conversation — to attempt to resume the gaslighting you subjected me to throughout the majority of our time together.
I’m only now able to remember things you did without hearing your voice undercutting the truth of my experience. Telling me it was my fault that you were threatening me, telling me that both depression and not giving in to suicidality were indicative of character flaws, after having systematically unmoored me from the things that kept me grounded and trying to turn me against my family at Thanksgiving. Which I also believed was my fault.
Miss me with the “it’s part of who I am” bullshit implicit in “I was abusive.” I know it’s part of who you are. A lot of people know it’s part of who you are. You are still responsible for how you chose to act.
Clearly, you know what you did; that’s reflected in your need to apologize, albeit generically, rudely — who opens an apology for poor treatment with a line that sums up to “IDGAF about what you need or want”? — and somewhere from four to seven years too late. Own up to it. Agency means responsibility.
If you want to apologize for any specific instance, or for your decision to abuse me, that’s your choice. But maybe try offering something more sincere than a blanket apology, and I might hear that out. But that’s my choice. I owe you nothing.
Yours truly,
Matthew. Not Matt. It was never Matt.

Miss me with the “it’s part of who I am” bullshit implicit in “I was abusive.” I know it’s part of who you are. A lot of people know it’s part of who you are. You are still responsible for how you chose to act.

She is directly responsible for her actions. She’s not going to take responsibility herself. Even with her admission, she refuses to structure the sentence in a meaningful way — with her as the subject, “abused” as the predicate, and me as the direct object of the sentence, as I was of her abuse.

If she were to say “I abused you,” or “I hurt you,” I could potentially accept an apology. If she admitted that she chose to do me harm, I could at least accept that it was an appropriate apology. She didn’t in either of the above emails, and so I will not accept it.

Whatever. She didn’t ask me to forgive her anyway, just to make her feel like she wasn’t going to get called out. Oops.

“I’m sorry, I’m calling you out. I understand that it hurts your feelings and might change the way some people see and interact with you.” That is how you structure an apology. It’s not that hard.


About two hours after I sent that reply, she replied one more time:

Bull. Fucking. Shit.

I replied, because I’m a goddamned fool:

I can’t accept that. Clearly you haven’t actually read my response to you, or you would have known that.
I know it’s long. You need to hear every last word.

I’ve heard nothing since. Will a real apology ever come? It’s been seven years since the meanness began, and four since we’ve divorced. I’m done waiting for it. It’s not coming.

Meanwhile, I have had to reconstruct my entire life from scratch while she gets to go on acting like she’s done nothing.

As my friend Sarah wrote elsewhere: “Abusers and rapists just get to keep living their lives, and we as a community turn a blind eye to these transgressions. … What is wrong with us, that we allow these people into our most sacred spaces? What are we, if we accept such things as normal?”

You can use this knowledge however you like. I don’t care if you cut her out of your life or buy her another beer, but at least now you know. That’s what I want. Not revenge, not mere gossip, but knowledge.

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