Abusers do not “play” the victim. Abusers really believe they are the victim.
I can always tell when I’m slipping into an abusive mindset. The trigger is when I become so angry about what someone did that I feel any level of retaliation is justified.
Anger comes with a burst of confidence and adrenaline, and that chemical mix is addictive. If someone becomes addicted to anger, they need more and more of it to get high. So they become angrier and angrier over smaller and smaller things.
Abuse can be thought of as the combination of entitlement and anger addiction. And entitlement is not about being spoiled. Entitlement is about believing that, “my life is so hard or unfair, and SOMEBODY owes me!” Abuse can also be thought of as the point where resentment outweighs compassion and common sense. And finally, abuse can be thought of as the consistent violation of boundaries.
In all cases, believing that I am the victim directly causes me to be abusive.
It’s only by imagining that everyone else is passive, unfair, stupid, or abusive that I can justify always being angry with them. Entitlement only makes sense if I can convince myself that I am a victim of circumstances, bad luck, or other people’s poor behavior. It’s only when I become so angry about the disgusting, stupid, absurd things other people have done that my resentment outweighs compassion. And I cannot justify violating other people’s boundaries unless I convince myself that they victimized me first.
Anyone can become abusive. Just believe strongly enough that you are a victim and that your desire for revenge is justified. It’s especially easy to become abusive if you are in close proximity to an abuser, in much the same way that it’s easier to become addicted to a drug if you always hang out with an addict.
This is why most abusive relationships eventually evolve into relationships where both people are abusive. This is why, for so many of us, the only way to deal with an abusive environment is to leave. When everyone around you gets high on anger, it’s hard to be the only one sober.
What does this have to do with apologies?
If someone “apologizes” but still talks about being a victim, the biggest problem is not that they are refusing to be accountable for their past actions. The biggest problem is that they are still addicted, still abusive.
So let’s talk specifics.
Let’s say my abuse is of a substance, not a person. Let’s say it’s meth. A genuine apology may sound something like this: “I know that my meth use is screwing up my job and my relationship with you. It’s unhealthy and I won’t use it any more.”
If I’m apologizing the three keys are that I should say specifically what I’ve done, say that it’s wrong, and say I won’t do it again. Honestly, the longer an apology is the less likely that it is sincere. And vague apologies are always worthless. When someone won’t clearly and specifically state what they did wrong, it’s because they are trying to mentally give themselves wiggle room to do it again.
Also, remember that there is a difference between fault and responsibility. If she only hurts you when she drinks, maybe the alcohol really is at fault. Brain chemistry matters. But if the alcohol is at fault, then that just means it’s her responsibility to not drink around you! She is still 100% responsible for hurting you. And it is 100% her responsibility to make certain she doesn’t hurt you again.
So never accept an apology where the person doesn’t take full responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Intentions, feelings, addictions, mental illnesses, beliefs and past trauma are all totally irrelevant when it comes to responsibility.
Here is another example. Let’s say she threatened you that you will never see your kids again. An apology would sound something like this: “I should not have used the kids as a threat against you. That was wrong and I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.”
But if she brings up all the ways you’re a “deadbeat”, or a “loser”, or that you don’t pay enough attention to her, or that you’re a failure as a father, she’s continuing to be abusive. And her “apology” is just one more manipulative trick.
Final example. He hit you. If he starts talking about how you push his buttons, or that he only wants the best for you and he can’t understand why you don’t change even though you know you make him angry–he’s going to hit you again. If he starts talking about his PTSD, his depression, his Mom, his traumas, or how “everyone is against him”–he still believes he’s a victim. He’s stuck. And it’s not your job to get him unstuck.
Even a genuine apology doesn’t mean the behavior will change. Addictions take work to overcome. But a real apology means there’s hope. A fake apology is just more emotional abuse.