Ms. Opinionated: Should I Write My Long-Ago Ex To Apologize For Hurting Him?

image of Megan Carpentier

Welcome to the latest installment of Ms. Opinionated, in which readers have questions about the pesky day-to-day choices we all face, and I give advice about how to make ones that (hopefully) best reflect our shared commitment to feminist values—as well as advice on what to do when they don't.

Dear Ms. Opinionated,

When I was in my very early 20s, I briefly but intensely dated a boy about a year younger than I was. He was very sweet, tender, and kind-hearted, albeit a little naive—but we both were. At first, I was really interested in him and things moved really quickly, but the intense feelings faded for me as quickly as they'd come. I was not experienced enough to know how that can sometimes happen, or all the reasons for moving a little slowly at first. I also freaked out a little bit over how quickly it all was moving and how intense he was and our relationship was. It only lasted two or three months.

We tried to still be friends, but I handled it badly. I felt like he still held a hope of us getting back together, so I was cold to him to discourage him. I'm ashamed to say I was not very nice or graceful about it all, and after awhile his presence made me feel anxious and upset, which I responded to with more coldness and sometimes harshness. Eventually I realized us being "friends" was not working and I cut off all ties with him. We haven't spoken since. He was understanding throughout all of this but clearly hurt and I would imagine a little bewildered.

It's been about five years since, and I am very happily living with my current partner of four years. I have no regrets about ending it with the first person, and absolutely no desire to invite that old boyfriend back into my life, but I do really feel badly about the way I treated him and more than once I've felt compelled to write to him to apologize for the immature way I behaved, to explain myself around how abruptly things changed and ended, and apologize for hurting him. I feel (and have felt for years) sorry for hurting that sweet, tender person. Is it okay to send him an apology email, even though I don't want to be his friend, or is that just re-opening an old wound that is better left alone?

Let me begin by putting my cards out on the table: I am not a fan of apologies—or, at least apologies as they are current socially constructed. Too many so-called apologies have to do with relieving the apologizer's emotional tension or guilt. "I'm sorry," often doesn't fix whatever pain or harm the apologizer caused—let alone keep him or her from doing it again—but it does set up a situation in which the person being apologized to is socially pressured to offer forgiveness, let go of anger, or stop expressing whatever feelings resulted from the act for which they received an apology. (And this is not even to get into faux-pologies like, "I'm sorry you were hurt," which attempts to negate the fact that it is the act that was hurtful and re-center the narrative around the apologizer's feelings about the apologee's reactions.)

There are some good apologies in the world, ones that acknowledge the validity of the anger or sadness of the apologee without attempting to limit it, ones that acknowledge without caveat that whatever the apologizer did was wrong, and ones that attempt to make real, concrete amends for the wrong done regardless of whether forgiveness or understanding is proffered.

But, in my experience, these kinds of apologies are few and far between. When you contemplate an apology, especially after years have passed since the wrong was done, the question you need to ask yourself is what amends can you really make at this stage—at some point, there's no way to fix what you broke and no amount of acknowledging you did something shitty is going to rectify the situation.

So, look: you dated someone, it got intense, your feelings changed, you ended the relationship. There are few versions of this story in the world where no one gets hurt, because getting dumped hurts. (Of course, being in a long-term relationship with someone who doesn't really love you but is sticking it out because they feel obliged not to hurt you is also destructive and hurtful—probably more so in the end—but it's hard to see that at the time.) I don't want to say you have nothing to apologize for in that regard, because it does suck that you "freaked out" rather than talking things through, but, you know, age and maturity are mitigating factors.

Look: you agreed to be his friend. Whether out of a sense of obligation—never a good thing, take it from me—or not, you then assumed he had ongoing feelings for you (possibly rightly so) and, rather than address them or offer to create some distance to find the right footing for your friendship, you were "cold" and then "harsh" and finally "cut off all ties," without an apparent explanation. That really wasn't good of you, as you know, and it was probably unnecessarily hurtful. There's no law that you have to stay friends with exes, or that you have to immediately go from a romantic relationship to besties but, especially as the dumper, there is a sense of obligation to try to be emotionally fair to your dumpee and, as you know, you sort of failed at that.

So before you pulled your disappearing act, you could've said something like, "I am really sorry for the way I've behaved. I got into a relationship with you that was more serious than I was ready for, and I agreed to a friendship with you sooner than I was ready or able to be a friend to you. I know I have hurt and upset you, and that you might be angry with me, and I accept that. I want you to know that there's nothing wrong with you—you are a great person, and will be a good boyfriend to somebody some day, but I am not that somebody. And because of the mistakes I've already made, I feel like the best thing to do is to stop trying to make a friendship between happen, because I have put us in a place where I am not emotionally able to do that, and I really regret that my actions and reactions have put me in this place and caused you more pain." It wouldn't've been pleasant to say, nor pleasant to hear, but it would've been honest, it would've been an acknowledgment of his legitimate feelings and an acknowledgment of your attempt to rectify the ongoing painful scenario (your coldness and harshness) by creating a new one in which he would have time and space to heal.

But it's way too late for that. You have regrets about your past behavior, so you want to write him a letter to accomplish what, exactly? It's been five years. You don't regret ending the relationship, you don't regret ending the friendship, and you don't want to renew the friendship or even have any contact from him. Instead, you want to give yourself an opportunity to feel better about having been shitty and immature to him by rehashing how you fell out of love with him and why you ended things, and seek forgiveness or absolution by apologizing for the way you hurt him by doing things you don't really regret and don't see a way or reason to rectify.

In other words, this apology would be far more about making you feel better than about making him feel better.

In 5 years, this man has undoubtedly moved on with his life. Maybe he's had other intense romances, or learned to go slow himself. Maybe he's in a long-term relationship with someone that loves and appreciates his intensity. Maybe what it took to jog him out of the rut of being way more into you than you were into him was the anger when you ditched your friendship after having been cold. Maybe he doesn't want to forgive, or won't feel better if he does. Maybe it will open up old wounds, or make him question his decisions about honoring your desire for no contact (since you would've initiated it) or renew some torch he's been quietly carrying, messing up the equanimity he's found in the years since you bailed. Or maybe, though this seems unlikely, he's been waiting 5 years for you to apologize that he got hurt. The thing is that now, as it probably was five years ago, you don't really know him well enough to know what he's feeling or what he might need or want, let alone speculate how it might affect him.

Ask yourself, honestly, what you truly believe a letter that says, "I'm sorry you got hurt" will accomplish for him, and not just how it'll make you feel. If you need to write it, write it down and put it in a drawer or, if you're into this sort of thing, release it into the world by (carefully!) burning it. But it is super unfair to this person to demand an end to your friendship and then impose yourself in his life and consciousness by sending a letter to apologize and shut the door again.

Full disclosure: More than fourteen years ago, I said some really harsh-to-the-point-of-being-untrue things to a good friend of mine, after we'd had an imperfect romance that I ended and built a really solid friendship together.  He stopped speaking to me and we both moved away shortly thereafter. I actually did write him a letter three years later, apologizing for and taking back the things I'd said, telling him that I understood why he was hurt and angry and making clear that, if he ever wanted to renew our friendship even though I was the one who'd killed it, I was open to that on whatever time frame and in whatever way he felt best, if at all. He called me the night he got the letter and thanked me and I can, happily, count him among my friends to this day. But it took weeks of agonizing writing and self-honesty—really facing the fact that I'd fucked it up badly and thinking about how I could acknowledge what I'd done and try to make it right for him—to get it any kind of close to right, and it was a pretty abject and honest letter in its final form.

So I'm not opposed to this sort of thing! But I also knew my friend well enough to know how much what I'd said had hurt him even if he knew it wasn't really true, and that me acknowledging that it wasn't true and that I knew it wasn't true would be a way to begin to make up for having said those things at all.


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