by Amy Alkon
Q: I went through a horrible divorce several years ago. Our marriage got very ugly, and I was mainly at fault. I’ve since worked very hard to get my life together and become a better person, but this past Saturday night, out of the blue, I got a slew of angry, abusive texts from my ex-husband. Some of these texts: “I have a new wife & she’s younger than u & treats me way better.” “My career is going great. I bet ur more of a mess than ever.” “Ur a sociopath. I hope u die.” He also texted me an aerial shot of his new house and pool. A while back, I tried to apologize to him on the phone, but he was, to put it nicely, not interested. Is there a way to stop all this ugliness? (P.S. The new me stopped the old me from sending back snarky texts.)—Changed Person
A: Nothing says, “I’m over you” like a Saturday night text blitz of hate and real estate.
When life sends you hate, it’s tempting to make haterade: “Luv the pool. Will b over 2nite to swim with adolfo, my 24-yr-old underwear model boyfriend.” But the snarky low blow will just keep the ugly flying. Consider that anger comes out of hurt—from feeling that we’ve been treated unfairly—and try a counterintuitive approach: Calling up a little compassion. Compassion gets confused with empathy, the ability to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes. But compassion is empathy plus an action plan—dialing in to the hurt that the person is feeling and then wanting to do something to make things better (rather than just taking the spectator approach: “Woo, is he ever having a crummy life!”).
Compassion is the gateway to accountability—taking responsibility for the harm you caused. You do that by admitting what you did and apologizing for it and then trying to make good in the best way you can. Sure, you tried to apologize to him before, but on the phone. The phone is easy. It’s the medium of prank calls and “30 minutes or less or your pizza is free!”
Referencing the work of apology researcher Aaron Lazare, M.D., I explain in my book Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck that a meaningful apology is a “costly apology”—one that requires the person doing the apologizing to invest time and effort, take a hit to their ego by admitting wrongdoing and maybe even spend money. (On that last one, that’s if you, say, broke someone’s vase, as opposed to their ability to trust women, which is a little harder to put a dollar amount on.)
A “costly apology” starts with a full jerktopsy—your dissection of three things: 1. Why what you did was wrong; 2. What it must mean to the person you wronged; and 3. How things could have (and should have) been different. Laying out these details—first for yourself and then for the person you harmed—helps them see that you understand what you did and that you aren’t all “yeah, whatever, bro” about its effects on them. By making a meaningful effort to clean up the damage you did to their dignity—their feeling that they’re worthy of care and respect—you may allow them to stop clinging to what you did and maybe even forgive you (putting an end to the fun game of “I’ll claw your back; you claw mine”).
Send your apology to your ex in a letter—one that is detailed and thoughtful, reflects self-knowledge and healthy humility and expresses remorse. He may or may not accept your apology, believe you’ve changed or change his attitude toward you. But apologizing is the right thing to do and, ultimately, something you need to do for you. Getting in the habit of being accountable makes you a better romantic partner, a better friend and a better person (and probably a person who sleeps better, as you tend to do when your conscience isn’t yoo-hooing you with 3am wake-up calls).
Sometimes you can’t entirely do right by the person you hurt (like when anything beyond a letter of apology would be unwanted and/or require body armor). Unfortunately, there’s no “undo” command in life, and a working time machine is probably at least 50 years behind my tragically nonexistent flying car. So when you find yourself still owing, it’s good to do something for somebody-—maybe some sort of volunteer or philanthropic work—with the explicit purpose of making up for the harm you did. And then, when the confused homeless guy wonders why you’re giving him not just the bag of groceries but the car you loaded it into, you can mumble, “Um … let’s just say marriage wasn’t my strong suit.”