Oblique Strategy #10 — What’s the worst apology you’ve ever heard?

There must be exceptions, but there are few divorcing couples who wouldn’t profit from an apology by one to the other. In fact, most would benefit from a mutual exchange of apologies.

Jim Westwick was one of the best men I’ve known, and he regularly “puckered people off” — an expression he used regularly. Shortly after his death, Jim Westwick’s wife, Phyllis, told me that a chaplain visited them at Hospice and asked if they had first apologized to and then forgiven each other. I thanked her for the story, said it was very good idea, and that I’d try to remember it for myself. Then I asked, “So?”

“So … what?” she asked.

“Had you both apologized to and forgiven each other?”

“We talked about it,” she said, “and we were pretty sure we had both apologized and forgiven. Nothing formal, but over the years — after things happened.”

The lawyer in me pressed, “Did you forgive him for the time he gave you the electric fly zapper for an anniversary present?”

It caught her by surprise. “I’d forgotten about that!”

“Well … ”

“It might have been the worst anniversary present ever,” she said.

“It’s still pretty funny.”

She agreed, “Funny after I got over the shock.”

“That was a pun.”

“I didn’t mean it.”

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There are people who cannot apologize because they are unable to admit to being wrong. They can’t acknowledge wrongdoing — no matter how minimal — because the sense of who they are (I’ll call it the “ego”) may have a powerful effect on others, but it is also fragile and in need of constant and unconditional protection.

If a client says of her spouse, “He’s never wrong. Sometimes I think he knows he’s wrong and simply denies it; at other times I think he honestly believes in his own infallibility. I wouldn’t consider an intervention to inspire an apology because if he makes one, it will be bad.”

Here are four Bad Apologies that you may have heard about in the media.

» 1. Jason Blair was a New York Times reporter who plagiarized or fabricated thirty-six stories. When discovered and called to account he said, “I remain truly sorry for my lapses in journalistic integrity. I continue to struggle with recurring issues that have caused me great pain.”

» 2. Tony Hayward, British Petroleum CEO at the time of the Gulf of Mexico blowout (whose compensation was $8.7M for 2013) said, “I’m sorry. We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused their lives. There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I’d like my life back.”

» 3. Alec Baldwin, 49 at the time, has a string of bad behavior and matching bad apologies to his credit. Because its content had been publicly released, he felt compelled to make several apologies as a result of this voice message he left for his daughter, who was eleven at the time: “You are a rude, thoughtless little pig. You don’t have the brains or the decency as a human being. I don’t give a damn that you’re 12 years old, or 11 years old, or that you’re a child, or that your mother is a thoughtless pain in the ass who doesn’t care about what you do as far as I’m concerned. Once again I have made an ass of myself trying to get to a phone. You have humiliated me for the last time with this phone.”

As bad as this was, no public apology was necessary until the content of the message was delivered to the court under seal and then leaked to the press, an act by another at least as bad as the offending message. Here’s the apology: “I have a normal relationship with my daughter. I’ve been driven to the edge by parental alienation for many years now. You have to go through this to understand. (Although I hope you never do.) I am sorry for what happened.”

                                                                        •        •

I was coming down Highway 101 one night and listening to talk radio when I heard the following description of the “R Formula” for apologies. I’ve both used and suggested its use many times since. There are four Rs:

» 1. Responsibility. The person making the apology accepts personal responsibility for what happened.

» 2. Remorse. There is an expression of sincere remorse. Effectiveness of the apology turns on the victim’s evaluation of the other’s sincerity.

» 3. Reparation. There is an offer or a declaration to do what it takes to restore the victim to his or her position before the event that made the apology necessary.

» 4. Reformation. A description of what the person making the apology is going to do or has already done to prevent a reoccurrence.

When an apology is necessary the victim’s world has been thrown out of whack; the function of the apology is to restore that world — to the extent possible — to the status quo ante. By accepting personal responsibility the apology assures the victim that, It was I; I did it — you’re not to blame for what happened to you. I am.

The victim’s best assurance that the same thing will not happen again is his evaluation of the sincerity of the expression of remorse. The need for reparation is obvious and what can be done by way of “reformation” varies widely and will be very case specific.

                                                                        •        •

Jim Westwick’s personality was so powerful (and delightful) that by merely working in the same office with him over the course of several years I can occasionally summon his shade. While writing this column his shade appeared uninvited but welcome:

“So Burke, I hear you’ve been slandering my fly killer.”

“No, not the fly killer, it’s been you — and remember that truth is a defense.”

“Why would you do a thing like that, especially now that I can’t defend myself?”

You have no defense.”

“Then what’s the offense?”

“You gave Phyllis a fly killer for your anniversary!”

“We had horses. When you have horses you have flies. We had flies so I gave her something that would kill flies. We could sit around the pool and hear them bite the dust – zap, zap, zap.”

“Jim, the horses were yours, so the flies were too.”

“Well, if you want to get technical, but regardless of whose horses and whose flies, we had flies around the pool, and Phyllis didn’t like them any more than I did.”

“I don’t know how to explain this to you, but delight in the sound of big horse flies being electrocuted is a guy thing. Most women would rather have the flies disappear without the sound effects.”

“I don’t get what I did wrong. I remembered the anniversary. I should get ninety out of a hundred points for that alone.”

“Jim, anniversaries are supposed to be romantic. Spouses take the occasion to let each other know that they are glad they are married to each other.”

“I was always happy to be married to Phyllis.”

“I think she knew that, but a killing machine is a terrible vehicle for expressing love and affection.”

“That’s preposterous, Burke. You’re having an attack of the vapors and should take to your bed.”

There would have been no apology from Jim Westwick for the fly killer, and it wasn’t because he was unable to admit he was wrong or unable to make an apology; he had ample opportunities to do both. But in this instance he just wasn’t sorry and Phyllis had the perfect response. Once she got over the initial shock, she got some mileage in the retelling of the story and then she forgot about it — really forgot about it.

Next column: Oblique Strategy #11 — Does hearing about the case give people the cooties?

— Brian H. Burke is a certified family law specialist practicing family law and mediation in Santa Barbara. A researcher and educator in the field of divorce and family conflicts, he is also the creator of the Legal Road Map™. Click here for more information, call 805.965.2888 or e-mail info@burkefamilylaw.com. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.